Books, Bullets and Guns
Texas Southern University sophomore Ashley Sloan knew the dangers of the 'hood. She'd grown up in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas, where gunshots could be heard popping through the night.
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.
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
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.
As a teenager, Sloan battled obesity and sometimes felt that she didn't measure up to her peers. But she was active in her church and at Dallas's W.W. Samuell High School, where she played volleyball, softball and was a varsity cheerleader.
And there was work as well. Sloan found a job at a supermarket in her Pleasant Grove neighborhood. A co-worker, Brit'ni Samples, is now a sophomore at TSU.
"She was easy to talk to," Samples remembers. "You could tell her something and she could relate to it really well...I never knew her to get into any kind of trouble."
And there was plenty of potential trouble waiting in Pleasant Grove. Samples recalls walking to work with Sloan, having to wade through packs of leering men and even past guys running from the cops. They heard gunshots. "I thought, growing up in Pleasant Grove, there's not much more [violence] that I could see, but obviously there is because it never hit too close to home."
While some Third Ward neighborhoods around TSU can resemble those Dallas areas, it seemed that Sloan's transition to the university would take her away from those danger zones.
The Greystone Apartments complex where she lived is the oldest of three student housing units owned by TSU and operated through leases with management companies. They are touted as highly secure living quarters, with surveillance cameras in common areas and other safety features. Some units are even equipped with "panic buttons" for use during emergencies.
Foremost are the rules restricting access: The staff is to screen visitors, and only those accompanied by or personally authorized by student residents are to be allowed in.
However, several students interviewed say the safety talk was only hype, that security was largely a sham in these TSU-owned quarters.
Consider four freshman girls who moved into Greystone at the end of August: Yolanda Pollard, Brittini Robinson, Amber Martin and Brittany Morgan. "They told me in the beginning that there would be on-campus security and all that good stuff, but the next thing you know there are people breaking into cars and there are shootings," Robinson remembers. That was just the beginning.
Only a few weeks into the semester, Martin says, a stranger raped her in her own apartment (Martin is a pseudonym to protect her privacy). She says management's disregard for students was evident when she returned from talking to police to get some clothes so she could stay elsewhere.
"...The landlord was yelling at me, like, 'Why did you go to the police and why didn't you come to me?' " Martin says. " 'Don't ever go to the police when something happens to you over here.' " She identified the woman as manager LaTreva Herndon, who referred questions to the president of Century Campus Housing, Jim Short.
He disputes Martin's story and says company records show that the managers became aware of the incident only because police had arrived. "When LaTreva got there, the victim was not cooperating with the police, and LaTreva encouraged her to do so," says Short.
Martin left TSU and returned home to Amarillo. "It was becoming like any other neighborhood where it's not a school," says Robinson, who grew up on the same street as Ashley Sloan. "Dudes were selling drugs out of the apartment. Fights. You hear gunshots. It was just too much going on for it to be a campus."
After Sloan was shot, Robinson withdrew from TSU and went back to Dallas, where she enrolled in a community college. "I shouldn't be worried to the point where I'm trying to come home, because really I'm trying to get away from home," Robinson says. "If I have to deal with this, I might as well stay at home."
Robinson contends that drug dealing is widespread and that firearms are commonplace in the TSU housing.
Martin says her experiences are similar. "My next-door neighbor -- every guy in that apartment had a gun...You could go in the apartment and they were lying on the counter, lying on the couch, whatever." She continues, "They said that they needed them, I guess to protect themselves."
Samples, Sloan's friend from Dallas, believes police had ample warning of the dangers. At the beginning of the fall semester, someone shot up the apartment below hers in the University Courtyard student housing. She says she watched from her window as they left the apartment and shot around outside.
The administration responded by closing one of the apartment gates, she says, although TSU never explained what had happened.
"They don't want to tell us because they don't want to look bad, but that's not helping us," she says.
Robinson drafted her letter to the Greystone leasing office summarizing what she called dangerous conditions, although company representatives told her that her concerns weren't sufficient to justify her breaking her lease for the year. They've notified her that she still owes them more than $1,400.
And when it comes to contract disputes involving security, Robinson is hardly alone. The university and the housing operators can't even agree on who has the key responsibilities to protect student residents.
The university administration joined students and the community in mourning the death of Ashley Sloan, although its statements also defended the safety record of TSU prior to the shooting.
However, documents obtained by the Houston Press show that TSU officials were alarmed at the lack of security in student housing in the months before her killing. On September 2, then-TSU general counsel Lynn Rodriguez fired off a letter to Greystone manager Herndon:
"I am writing to express the University's grave concerns regarding security at the Greystone student housing complex. Recent incidents at Greystone and at the University's other privatized housing complexes have led us to conclude that there is inadequate security at the complexes to protect our students and their guests."
According to Rodriguez's letter, TSU and Greystone had never even formally addressed the critical issue of who -- the university or the management company -- was responsible for providing basic security.
Rodriguez informed Herndon that she believed that they had agreed that the Century Campus Housing management company was required to ensure a safe living environment. Rodriguez refused to comment on her letter or on security in general.
"What it really comes down to is what is commercially acceptable in multifamily real estate as a 'standard of duty,' " says Century Campus president Short. He says that his company has installed closed-circuit cameras, improved lighting and cut back shrubbery to reduce the dark areas. "These are commercially typical responses," he says. "This is a bad world and there are bad people and we can't keep everybody safe.
"Considering the fact that TSU has put somebody there 24/7, there wouldn't be anything significant that we need to do differently," Short says.
Greystone is in the 3600 block of Rosewood, just off the campus and near the Tierwester Oaks complex where Sloan was shot. Tierwester and a third TSU-owned, student-only housing complex, University Courtyard, are operated by Ambling Management Company.
And Ambling, TSU documents show, also is engaged in arguments with the university over student safety.
Ambling regional vice president Tana Lee Higginbotham wrote TSU administrators on January 6 to protest that the school's financial aid department had not made scheduled payments to her company since October 20.
Higginbotham stated that the failure to pay more than $544,000 "has made it difficult to cover operating expenses including the contracted patrol service payments provided by TSU."
This was after dean of students Willie Marshall told her that the school was withholding the money because Ambling failed to provide security. Higginbotham did not want to comment.
The management agreements regarding security are surprisingly vague considering the safety concerns for an open campus in the Third Ward. With the nebulous terms, it's hard to say who deserves more of the blame for the security problem at the residential complexes, but it's clear who comes out losing in the end: students such as Ashley Sloan.
On the night Sloan was killed, she and her friends partied at the Canfield Apartments, a complex not far from Tierwester Oaks that's not affiliated with the university. At the party, one of Sloan's male friends choked a man in an alcohol-charged brawl over another girl. One witness said that some of the men referred to themselves as Crips gang members.
Apparently the young man with the bruised neck and the bruised ego left with a score to settle. According to HPD detective Abbondandolo, the man went to a nearby house and found Alex Morris, a slim 24-year-old.
He was popular around campus, in part because of his well-known parents. Eileen Morris is the former artistic and managing director of the Ensemble Theatre of Houston, and she's directed and acted in area plays for years. Morris's father, for whom Alex is named, is a former Alley Theatre company actor who made it to network TV. He has a recurring role on Malcolm in the Middle and has appeared on Alias, The Practice and Frasier.
The younger Morris had been arrested in October 2000 for cocaine possession with intent to deliver. "He was a young kid who was going through some emotional problems regarding the fact his father was living on the West Coast and his mother was living on the East Coast," says attorney Shelton Sparks, who represented Morris in that case. "There's nothing that I could have foreseen that would cause him to do what he has allegedly been doing or charged with now."
Morris was not indicted in that cocaine case, but less than a week after his release he was arrested again. This time it was for selling cocaine to an undercover officer and resisting arrest. He received probation, but that was revoked after he tested positive for marijuana, morphine and codeine.
He had been out of jail for less than a year when he allegedly grabbed his semiautomatic pistol and walked into the night to find the man who had choked his friend. That companion and Morris entered through the Tierwester Oaks parking gate without incident and located their adversary's unit, but there was no answer.
They were headed back through the complex's parking lot when the man they'd been seeking suddenly emerged from the building and the argument began. As Sloan and her friends looked on, Morris allegedly pulled his pistol and started firing wildly, hitting Sloan with one of the shots.
About a week later, Morris cried like a baby when he was arrested at a friend's house. He expressed great remorse but did not make a confession, officers say. He remains in jail.
The killing triggered a major upgrade in security on the 150-acre campus and at the student housing units, which are now staffed with officers around the clock.
That has strained an already limited campus police force. Much of the burden has fallen on contract law-enforcement personnel from the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff's Department and the Precinct 7 Constable's Office.
But as TSU police chief James Young knows, the funds for the added police presence won't last forever.
Young, a former NFL pro who could pass for Smokey Bear, took over as chief in 2003. His second-floor office is across the street from Tierwester Oaks.
From that office filled with law-enforcement magazines, football photos and the sounds of radio chatter and dispatch alerts, he oversees a department of 26 sworn peace officers and an annual budget of $1.75 million.
He's optimistic about the future. "The 24-hour security has a tremendous amount of benefits for us," Young says. "It brings back order."
Young has the statistics to show that budget increases for security and added officers have made an impact on the effort to control crime at TSU. In 2002, there were 15 reported crimes of violence, with 13 the following year. That's a two-thirds decrease from 1993, when 39 violent crimes were reported at TSU.
But the 2003 figures -- the latest available from TSU -- remain higher than those at most campuses. And when figured on a per-student basis, the 2003 total is twice as high as that of the University of Houston's central campus, which led the state in the number of reported crimes of violence that year.
However impressive, the TSU statistics don't match those of another law-enforcement agency that receives calls about violent crimes in the TSU area: the Houston Police Department.
A Press analysis of HPD 911 calls indicates that TSU statistics understate violent crimes reported by the university.
The crime statistics supplied to the FBI by police agencies are limited to calls that result in the filing of offense reports. Some calls from TSU-owned apartment complexes would be expected to warrant offense reports but apparently did not. The disparities are reflected in last year's 911 calls; TSU police are typically dispatched and usually are the ones to determine if reports are warranted, according to Young.
On March 4, a female student in the 3500 block of Blodgett complained that she was robbed and carjacked at gunpoint. No report was filed.
On April 19 at the same address, someone complained that five guys assaulted him. No report was filed.
On April 28, a female said that she was assaulted. On September 5, another female reported being assaulted. And on November 1 and 2, two females reported that they were assaulted in separate incidents. No reports were filed.
"Many police calls do not generate a police report," says a former Houston police chief, Harry Caldwell. "They just want police to show up and make it stop."
But schools are known to intentionally keep their numbers down. "What happens on most campuses is that the administration will bend over backwards to try to keep their stats down because they don't want the taxpayers to know what's happening," Caldwell says. He says that turning a blind eye to drunkenness is one thing; doing it with an assault is another. "The only authority that campus police officers should answer to is the oath of office that he took to enforce the law."
But TSU appears to be sidestepping some laws designed to keep students and the public informed of crimes.
The U.S. Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990 requires that colleges and universities provide campus crime statistics and reports to the public.
For example, the Rice University Police Department publicizes its campus crime stats down to the hour on its Web site: theft of bicycle; student reports receiving unwanted mail; resident reports unknown naked subject in his bed. It's all there. A student who wishes to stay informed can easily do so.
But sometimes at TSU it's as if the crime never happened.
The TSU Web page devoted to publicizing statistics -- daily updates or even past figures -- has been blank but for the words "We at Texas Southern University are actively updating and enhancing our website to better serve you. Please check this page again soon, as new information is continually released." The page devoted to publicizing crime alerts reads the same a full three months after Ashley Sloan was killed.
The sharing of information can go a long way. Last October, two months before Sloan was killed, a student living in TSU's Greystone complex contacted a confidential violence hot line called the Marsai Alert. Netty Murray set up the system for kids to report violence on their high school and college campuses because her daughter, Marsai, was killed by a stray bullet to the head, not unlike Ashley Sloan.
The TSU student calling the hot line complained that students at Greystone used guns to threaten one of his friends. John Perry, the public relations director for the Marsai Alert, took the call.
Perry typed a report and sent it by certified mail for hand delivery to the police chief and the president. "They certainly didn't give us the impression that we were impinging on their territory," Perry says. "I assumed that from that point they would have heightened security -- they would find some way to get the word out that there were guns on campus. That's the last I'd heard of it until the incident happened with Ashley Sloan."
Chief Young says he requested that Perry ask his informant for more information. "If you're really scared, you'll give me all the information you can so I can put him in jail," he says. "This is not enough for probable cause. That's the kind of position they put us in."
What Young didn't say is that, according to other TSU documents, his department has been working with HPD tactical and gang units in undercover operations that began last fall. They are said to be targeting drug trafficking and illegal weapons.
Cordell Lindsey says he took a more public approach as TSU chief from 1989 to 2001. He says he had his officers regularly conduct surprise dorm sweeps for guns and drugs. "We would knock on doors and ask permission to look around," he says. In some cases, search warrants would be obtained, he adds.
It's too soon to determine whether undercover operations will be more effective than Lindsey's sweeps. What is certain is that Lindsey acknowledges the problems with guns and violence in a much more public way. But Lindsey, who won $350,000 in a lawsuit that accused administrators of firing him to halt an investigation, was known as a whistle-blower. Young isn't.
Any shroud of silence regarding campus safety hardly stops with the administration. Students themselves seem reluctant to come forward.
"A lot of people don't want to deal with the authorities, for fear of retaliation," says Perry of the Marsai Alert hot line. "Generally, when you talk to the authorities, you have to give your name. These people are dangerous out here. If they find out that you have ratted them out, they are going to come get you."
But a lot of the refusal to cooperate comes from a 'hood solidarity that's ingrained in hip-hop culture. Nothing is worse than being a rat. HPD investigator Abbondandolo discovered as much when he was investigating Sloan's slaying. "There were a lot of people that were there that saw what happened. But there were virtually no Crime Stopper tips -- no calls from people that wanted to help out."
It's a cultural shift. "It used to be that you had an Ashley Sloan-type case, where you had an innocent victim in a violent case, where even the thugs would have some sense of right and wrong. We don't get those calls anymore. People don't want to cooperate."
However, freshman Leslie Williams says she stepped forward to report the bizarre actions of a man at Tierwester Oaks -- he was telling others he had killed Sloan -- and wound up being arrested by TSU police after commenting to the news media about the incident. Officers seemed more intent on silencing her than on upgrading student safety, she says (see "Quelling Comments -- Not Crime?").
But even after Sloan's killing, most TSU students hardly appear to be that concerned about potential dangers.
That was evident on a warm January afternoon, when the Student Government Association hosted a general forum in "The Pit," the sunken courtyard outside the student center.
Organizers set up a podium, microphone and loudspeakers so students could approach to air their concerns, comments or just about anything else. Coupled with the DJ on hand to spin tracks, it was a two-hour block-party approach to student government.
A handful of the 200 or 300 students used the podium to give shout-outs to fraternities and sororities and the basketball team.
William Hudson, Oliver Brown and freshman class president Justin Jordan were the only voices in the wilderness, it seemed.
After Sloan's death, the three say, they searched the campus for dark areas and potential danger spots. In the back of an old dump truck at the General Service Building they found scores of discarded payroll documents that included the social security and IRA account numbers of every TSU employee, they say.
Their outrage at the mishandling of such private information set them on a mission to take down the university, or at least its current leadership. As a part of that campaign to "impeach" the TSU president, the trio compiled a "Special Crisis Report," a booklet of documents to support their claims.
They say they obtained some of the sensitive documents through their own research and with the help of an administration source. The section on security includes the Brittini Robinson letter complaining of drugs and firearms on campus as well as correspondence detailing the disputes between TSU and its housing management firms.
However, the recent upgrades in security and police patrols appear to have calmed many students' earlier worries.
"What they're doing now, they should've done," says Marcus Davidson, a TSU junior who transferred from the University of Texas. "The [student housing] gates were just wide open. You could just drive straight in...;" Davidson has his own place off campus. "I wouldn't stay on campus because of the security problems."
Raylii Ipki, a community assistant at University Courtyard, says screening of visitors still needs improvement, although students need to control their own behavior rather than blame guards.
"Here people try to 'start' with you," Ipki says. "They don't let problems happen, they make problems. I think it has to do with them wanting people to look at them as big and bad."
Faculty members are also concerned. Instructor Deborah Dirden says she was teaching a night course in her auditorium-style classroom a few days before Sloan was killed. A nonstudent entered, walked up to Dirden's desk on the stage and "hit me across the head with her arm, then she hit me in the eye with her fist," Dirden says.
As the attack continued, "the students started screaming. They saw something which I didn't see. She had a screwdriver and she was trying to stab me." Her class disarmed the woman and held her until police arrived and took her away.
Dirden doesn't know what provoked her attacker and says she doesn't feel as safe as she once did. "Maybe I was just naive thinking that everybody was good because nothing had ever happened. Afterwards, students began telling me things that made them feel uncomfortable." They told her about guns and drugs on campus.
"My homeboy is from Dallas," Robinson says. "He came down to TSU to visit and stayed in the dorm rooms...He got jumped that first day."
Freshman class president Jordan remembers one Houston-Dallas melee from last semester, along the main "Tiger Walk" on campus. "In the old Tarzan movies they have a bunch of black people dressed up in African stuff and they just run and they yell," he says. "I saw that coming down the Tiger Walk one day. And they were punching at the same time.
"Security came out of everywhere, like a swarm. The fight started at Greystone, wound up at University Courtyard, got to the Tiger Walk, and it ended down by the recreation center."
Jordan laughs and shakes his head as he tells the story, but the rivalry is real.
Back in Dallas, Thelma Sloan remembers the night of December 3, when she lay in bed reading bereavement cards with inspirational messages.
She planned to send them to her sister, whose oldest daughter had just died of cancer. But, she says, "As God would have it, they were for me. God was preparing my heart."
At 3 a.m. the next morning, the phone rang. Her cordless battery was dead, so she couldn't hear the caller. The phone rang again. "It was one of those calls where they wouldn't hang up. It just kept ringing and ringing," she says.
Sloan ran into another room to find a second phone for the message about her daughter: "Her friend would be on the line telling me that Ashley just got shot."
The mother has been stoic. "It's really been me trying to get them to understand that though it may have been a tragedy to them, God preordained it."
She keenly remembers an earlier scene, just before Sloan left for her sophomore year. The two shared a heart-to-heart talk. Her daughter told her she never regretted not joining the navy, that she loved the college experience and was looking forward to getting her degree.
"If I can never say it again, I want you to know that I thank you," her mother remembers Sloan saying. It was the kind of conversation that, upon reflection, feels like a good-bye.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.