Free Times’ 2014 College Guide opens with a warning that Columbia is “a major Southern metro area with a crime rate to match.”
With the school year still in its infancy, college students in the Capital City may be finding that warning quite apt.
As the school year opened, there were several alleged armed robberies on the campuses of the University of South Carolina and Benedict College.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 21, a suspect — Kevin Rick O’Neal — reportedly approached a student on the USC Horseshoe and demanded money at gunpoint. O’Neal, who has been arrested in connection with the incident, allegedly followed the student back to the student’s dorm room on the East Quad.
On Aug. 24, students at USC were issued an alert that a suspect with a gun was headed toward the Russell House. Authorities did not locate the alleged suspect.
Also, officers were investigating a report of a strong-arm robbery in the early morning hours of Aug. 26 in the 1100 block of Whaley Street. The 19-year-old victim reportedly said he was walking from the Greek Village when a suspect hit him in the head with an object and took money from him.
Meanwhile, at nearby Benedict College, police arrested Janerio Anso Walker, 23, and charged him with armed robbery after he allegedly robbed five victims at gunpoint on the night of Aug, 25 at Benedict Community Park.
To say the least, it has been a dangerous start to the academic year on local college campuses.
In an open letter to students and faculty, USC President Harris Pastides says the recent incidents on campus “challenged our physical security and threatened our peace of mind.” The president promises a beefed-up police presence on campus, both uniformed and plainclothes officers, as well as more “directed police patrols” at certain hours of the day.
Pastides also directed students and faculty to the Carolina Alert website (sc.edu/emergency), where they can get safety tips and emergency procedures.
USC spokesman Wes Hickman says the school is rolling out a new mobile app, Rave Guardian, which will be available through iTunes and Google Play. The app will essentially be able to turn a smartphone into a mobile call box, enabling a student to alert and be located by police with just one touch.
Hickman says safety is a “top priority” at USC.
“We know that our campus is the safest place in the city for students, and it’s unfortunate that criminals target vulnerable populations, like students, for crimes of opportunity,” Hickman says.
One of the side effects of high-profile robberies against students is the perception they create of a given school or city for prospective future students — and parents of those prospective students.
Benedict Police Cpl. Tony Kennedy says the long-term effects associated with crimes on campus — and how those impact the perception of that campus — are a concern.
“No parent wants to hear about crime around the college,” Kennedy says. “So, just hearing it on the news may be the difference between somebody attending that college or not attending that college. So, that’s why, when you do hear this news where these crimes have been committed, we want to counteract that by doing something good and arresting these guys.”
Haywood Bazemore is the chief of the Benedict Police Department. The retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel says students need to be alert and use common sense when traversing campus.
“The key thing is to walk in groups,” Bazemore says. “Be aware of where you are and be aware of your immediate surroundings. If you see someone that looks strange that is approaching you in a forceful manner, be prepared to evacuate the area immediately. As we tell our folks, scream and holler. No individual wants to be around someone who is screaming and hollering.”
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