Campus Safety Under Fire At Savannah State

Mar 20, 2018

Editor's Note: Savannah State police chief James Barnwell was placed on administrative leave with pay as of March 23, 2018. The university says it is conducting an internal investigation and declined to comment further on the matter. Attorney Abda Quillian now represents two female officers from the university force. She tells GPB News that the University System of Georgia is investigating two misconduct complaints they filed against Barnwell. He is at least the third person to lead Savannah State’s public safety department in the last five years.

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Savannah State University is relatively small, with about 5,000 students. But it recently counted more aggravated assaults and weapons-related arrests than any other public university in Georgia.  

Showing identification is part of life for a college student, for everything from getting a discount at the movies to getting into student housing. But Amber Davis, a senior at Savannah State, says campus security can be so lax she once used a piece of meat to get past a guard.

“Last month I got on campus with a chicken nugget. Like, you have to hold up your I.D. and show them so you can get on campus, and I held up a chicken nugget one night and they told us to go on,” she said.  

Davis lives in the student apartment complex where a 20-year-old man was shot to death last month. She said she felt safe for a week after, when there was a security crackdown and a flood of law enforcement officers on campus.  

“But now that it's back to normal, it’s dying down. Like, some days you’ll feel safe, and some days you won’t. It just depends on what’s happening on campus at that moment,” she said.  

One former student still doesn’t feel safe. Paige Bullard’s front door is guarded by a security camera, a keyless entry lock, and Charlie. He lets her know when someone’s coming and he’s a therapy dog.

“He makes me not feel alone. And I can go places. I really don't go outside the house unless I'm at work,” she said.

Paige Bullard got her dog Charlie after surviving an armed attack at Savannah State's student housing complex, University Commons.
Credit GPB News / Emily Cureton

Bullard is afraid to go out alone since she was raped at gunpoint during her junior year at Savannah State. Campus security cameras recorded a man trolling the student housing complex for half an hour before he attacked her. Her lawyer Abda Quillian watched this footage over and over.

“If anyone had been watching that video. They would have sent someone over there to see who this person is and they never did,” she said.

The rapist went to prison. And Bullard sued. Late last year a Chatham County jury ordered Savannah State’s Real Estate Foundation and the University System of Georgia to pay millions in damages to her for failing to provide security measures like surveillance footage monitoring. The foundation owns the student housing complex and the Board of Regents leases it. They’re appealing the verdict. 

Meanwhile, Quillian has four other clients making similar cases: another rape survivor and three shooting victims. She says “the link between the cases is there's not adequate security to protect students.”

James Barnwell is the Chief of Savannah State’s public safety department. He said “the major challenge with student housing is identifying individuals that shouldn't be in there.”

Chief James Barnwell talks to students after an educational meeting about active shooters. He says community policing is the top priority for campus police.
Credit GPB News / Emily Cureton

The man shot on campus last month wasn’t a student. Neither is the 19-year-old accused of killing him. Nor was the man who raped Paige Bullard.

Savannah State is fenced, but it’s pretty porous. Every time I drove on campus the procedure varied. Barnwell said plans are in the works to scan visitor IDs and upgrade surveillance technology. But, Savannah State is an open campus and changing that is up to the state Board of Regents.

Paige Bullard and her dog Charlie live in Atlanta now. After the rape, she fell behind in school, and eventually she dropped out. 

“I wouldn't go to class. My friends had to come get me out my room because I had drunk a whole bottle and took some pills And I was just losing my mind. I didn't have nobody to reach out to. Nor did somebody reach out to me.”

She said that’s why she’s starting an organization to help survivors of campus sexual assault and push for more security measures. It’s called “What Happens Next.” Bullard’s mission is to be an advocate with a strong voice.

“But, you know sometimes I don't feel as strong, because I'm still going through things, too,” she said.