A closer look at recent crimes on the W's campus leads to more questions

Anna Clare Dudley and Price Hughes

Senior Reporter and Sports Editor

The W’s campus sprawls across more than 114 acres, with most of the buildings tucked inside a system of walls and gates. At night the gates are locked, restricting access from several roads that feed into campus during the day.

    The gates can give an illusion of safety, though. There is no way to make a campus like Mississippi University for Women’s absolutely free from danger — especially given that a railroad track makes its way across the back side of campus.

    Students and faculty can often be found in campus buildings until late at night working on projects, research or grading. But now many of them say they are wary about walking on campus at night, and they look for other ways to reach their dorms or cars.

    Over the years The W has had a few isolated incidents that shook confidence in campus safety. Recently, though, there were two incidents that occurred within six weeks of each other that have caused people to question how safe The W campus is and how transparent the university has been regarding those incidents.

    The Spectator decided to look more deeply into the issue of campus safety, including steps currently being taken by the administration to improve security. Many people expressed private concerns, but would not speak publicly. Others would not address specific situations. But everyone does agree on one thing: safety is one of the most important issues on campus.

 

Dec. 13, 2017

    On this Wednesday evening, a W Alert was issued at 10:53 p.m. stating “a robbery occured on campus at 8:40 P.M. There is no threat to campus at this time. Use caution and be aware of your surroundings.” No further details were sent to campus, but WCBI reported that it was an armed robbery and that a professor was “reportedly struck and robbed.”

    That alert was issued almost two hours following the incident, and few details were released. It was near the end of the semester, and most people moved on with their holiday plans. Yet, there were nagging question at the beginning of this semester. What really happened that night?

    Police Chief Danny Patton is in his sixth year as chief of the MUW Police Department. He recognizes not only the need for safety, but the very feeling of safety. That is why there are so many procedures in place to try and make the W’s campus as safe as possible in a part of town where quite a bit of violence occurs. The W’s campus is located within the city, and it is not immune to what happens around it.

    But when asked what happened on Dec. 13, Patton said he could not comment directly about any incident on campus. The Spectator was instead referred to University Relations, which sent over copies of official university releases about the incident.

    The Spectator was able to speak with the professor involved in the incident, and she agreed to provide information about what happened. She wants to remain anonymous given the severity of what occurred and to also not make this about her. Instead, she wants this to help bring about improvements in campus safety. Here is her account of what happened that night:

 

Wed., Dec 13, during final exam week. 8:30 pm. I was walking to my office. My grade book, notes, computer and phone were in my work tote on my shoulder. I was in a normally heavily-trafficked area of campus, just outside the campus police department, close to the Subway sandwich shop. A man was also walking there. He said “Hi;” I said “Hi.” Then he walked towards me and said “Excuse me,” lunged at me with his right arm raised, and struck me hard on the back of the head with a smooth, hard object. I don’t know what it was. I tried to get away, but he held my arm and continued to strike me in the head. I screamed loudly and continuously. Meanwhile, he pushed me down onto the sidewalk where he continued hitting me in the head repeatedly, using both fists. Discovering he had let go of my left arm, I covered my head with both of my hands while continuing to scream. Eventually he paused, lifted me partway up from the sidewalk, shouted “bitch!” and struck me hard and deliberately in the side of the head with the object again, then flung me back to the sidewalk. After that, he pulled the tote bag off of my shoulder and ran off with it. Immediately afterwards, two young women, one of whom was my former student, came through the area and discovered me bleeding from the head. An ambulance was called, and I was sent to Baptist ER where I received multiple staples to seal the gashes in my head. Other injuries were bruises to my head, bruises and abrasions across both hands, bruises to my left arm, twisted neck and hip where I landed.

 

    University police said they stopped the suspect a few minutes after the robbery, but he threw down her stolen belongings and ran away. The suspect, Dominico Saddler, 33, was arrested on Feb. 14 by Columbus police who were serving a warrant. Saddler is charged with armed robbery and two counts of burglary.

    The W released a statement regarding Saddler’s arrest.

    MUW President Jim Borsig said, “I appreciate the interagency collaboration between the Columbus Police Department, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the MUW Police Department. The good work by all three agencies led to this arrest.”

    No update regarding the actual circumstances of the incident was provided, and the university has made no other comment regarding the assault and robbery.

 

Jan. 30, 2018

    On this Tuesday night, students, faculty and staff were surprised to receive a W-Alert at 8:16 p.m. stating “a robbery has been reported on 11th St near Pohl Gym. Victim was not injured and suspect not located. No imminent threat to campus at this time. Please continue to monitor your surroundings and be cautious and alert.”

    The following day the university sent out a safety bulletin regarding the incident that contained the information that the robbery had taken place at 7:29 p.m., almost an hour before the W-Alert was issued.

    The rest of the bulletin read as follows:

    The incident occurred on 11th Street in the MUW Lot adjacent to the Education Building.

    The student reported that she was leaving Stark Recreation Center and was approached by a male who demanded her purse, which was in the trunk of her vehicle. The individual was described as a black male, 5 feet tall, wearing a black leather jacket and black pants. He was last seen traveling west on Fifth Avenue South on foot.

    Several students in buildings in the area near where the robbery took place were nervous that evening, given that the robber escaped. Local media, including WCBI, reported that it was an armed robbery.

    The university has issued no further information regarding the incident, and the police chief added no further information.

 

Security on Campus

    These incidents have prompted students, faculty and staff to question if there is enough of a police presence on campus. (See “Is the W a safe place?” on page 3).

    There are many different gates across campus, both for traffic and pedestrians. Each night, all the street gates and many of the pedestrian gates are locked at a certain time as a means of precaution.

    “It depends on what events are going on around campus, but we usually try to get everything locked down at 7,” said Patton.

    It is impossible to lock down the campus completely because there is a train track that runs through the back side of the campus.

    “We’re trying to lock them [the walk-through gates] down at the same time that the coffee shop closes,” said Chief Patton.

    There are currently nine officers on staff at the W’s Police Department. Patton is currently trying to add two more officers, and he is hopeful that the budget approval will go through.

    He also says that unless there is an event going on, each night the officer at the gate at the front of campus should be checking the IDs of anyone trying to get on campus.

    No matter how many procedures the police department has to keep this campus safe, it is impossible to keep it completely safe. Incidents can and do occur.

    Many people, who preferred not to have their names used, expressed the feeling that there should be police officers patrolling on foot, or at least an increase in the amount of patrols around campus at any given time. Most don’t expect it to be a risk-free environment, but they would feel better if police were more visible on campus.

 

Concerns Remain

    But, for many people on campus, the question remains, are the police department and the university being transparent in the sharing of information about incidents that occur? Is the university as safe as it can be?

    As several professors noted, this is a discussion that needs to take place on campus to ensure the safety of all who are part of The W or who attend events at the university. Providing a safe environment — and one in which people feel safe — is a top priority for any university, and The W is no exception.