By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
When Sloan graduated from high school two years ago, she wanted to enlist in the navy to get away from it all. "She just had this desire as a child to see the world," explains her mother, Thelma Sloan.
She had her own concerns about her daughter's plans: War was looming in Iraq, Sloan's likely destination if she joined the military. "I pleaded with her. I told her, 'I don't want to stand in the way of whatever your desires are. If you finish out the school term for me...I would never stand in your way again.' "
Texas Southern was hardly the safest campus. In the early '90s, it was among the most violent schools in the state. But officials have prided themselves on security upgrades and a reduction in reported crime.
And, Thelma Sloan hoped, it had to be better than Baghdad. By most accounts, her daughter adapted well to college life, even in the uncertain existence of the Third Ward neighborhood southeast of downtown.
On December 4, 2004, Ashley Sloan and several companions were winding down from a typical Friday night out, sharing some final banter in the warm predawn darkness in the parking lot of a TSU-owned apartment complex.
Suddenly, an escalating confrontation ended the laughter. About 80 feet separated two clusters of men beginning the ritual before the rumble: shouting, cussing, flailing. Before Sloan and her friends had a chance to react, muzzle flashes and gunfire sprayed through the night.
Her friends ducked behind a car. She stood frozen. When the mayhem subsided, the companions regrouped. They found Sloan lying facedown on the pavement in a pool of her own blood.
For Houston police investigator Clement Abbondandolo, Sloan's killing was another lethal lesson in random slayings. "Her death is nothing but an exercise in geometry," he explains. "Bullets travel in a straight line. This is a girl that had nothing to do with anything, except she was standing in the wrong place."
On the side of the student apartment house, the detective counted about a half-dozen bullet holes that spanned an area 50 feet wide and two stories high. The gunman, Abbondandolo wryly notes, was "no marksman."
And for TSU, it was another failing grade in a subject the university claims to have made a priority: student safety. Over the past 14 years, crime problems repeatedly have stung the historically black school. In the early '90s, Texas Southern had the most violent campus in all of Texas. In violent crimes, it outnumbered schools with four times its enrollment, which is now almost 12,000 students. According to FBI-compiled statistics, there were 39 violent crimes (mostly aggravated assault) reported in 1993 and 36 in 1994.
The reported crimes decreased over the next five years but remained far higher than the average campus.
In 1999, a performance review by the state comptroller's office reported that campus security, among other things, would have to improve for the university to continue under its own direction. Auditors found faulty police dispatch equipment. The police radio master console was broken, and the master fire alarm system did not audibly alert the dispatcher.
There also was no evidence that the university was complying with the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act, which requires schools to maintain and distribute crime statistics.
In 1999, the university's Board of Regents installed Dr. Priscilla Slade as president, the fifth in 12 years. The former business school dean took a no-nonsense approach and, by most accounts, has been the driving force behind a TSU turnaround.
TSU later met the benchmarks for improvements set by the comptroller's audit, but the university's commitment to security remains specious.
Students say that basic safety, even at a campus in a violent area of the city, often gets ignored. It isn't addressed in standard orientation. The university doesn't alert students to serious crimes. And the school's approach to disciplining student offenders is criticized as being lax at best.
Residents of student housing aren't referring to college pranksters or typical petty thefts. These are reports of drug activity and discharging of firearms in dorms and TSU-owned complexes. Rivalries between student groups take on some aspects of urban gang warfare, with little apparent response by the administration.
A review of internal records shows that basic issues, such as who is responsible for providing safety in student housing, aren't even clear.
Brittini Robinson says the absence of security forced her to drop out of TSU soon after Sloan's killing. In a letter to the administration, she told of her roommate being raped and of the shock of regularly seeing students with guns tucked in their belts and backpacks.
"I thought that coming to an institution of higher learning that these things would not happen," Robinson wrote. "Now, with the killing of my friend since elementary school, Ashley Sloan, I have stood my last fight with this university and [student] apartment complex."
Sloan was like many other TSU students, a middle-class young woman drawn to the school from the urban haunts of Texas. Her mother is an insurance worker, and her father was a carpet layer until injuries disabled him.