On February 7, Don’Kevious Johnson, a sophomore at Bethune-Cookman University (BCU), turned to Facebook to vent about the rigors of college life.
“College can be very difficult and challenging at times but it’s what you make of it,” he wrote. “Times get real to the point you want to give up but by the grace of God and faith the sun shines again.”
Johnson was a native of poverty-stricken Belle Glade, Florida, nicknamed “Muck City” for the ubiquitous, sticky black mud in which the area’s sugarcane grows. After graduating high school, he journeyed the 200 miles north to Daytona Beach where he enrolled at BCU, one of the state’s several historically black universities. He played linebacker for the football team and maintained a 3.05 GPA in his pursuit of a psychology degree. But as he began this school year, a new semester brought a new challenge: In late September, Johnson became the father of a baby girl.
After Johnson published his post, his support system rose to encourage him. “You have everything in you to be great. Keep praying and keep pushing,” a former teacher wrote. Johnson’s mother, April Quimbley, chimed in: “GOD got you to the end, just have faith and don’t give up.”
“Mom, you know I’m a fighter,” he replied, “nothing won’t break me.”
Six days later, on February 13, the 23-year-old was shot dead at an off-campus party held at a swanky Daytona Beach golf club. According to a police report, Johnson and his friends were approached by 23-year-old Lamont Postell and several others. The two groups began brawling. Johnson reportedly walked away. Postell, who does not attend BCU, took out a handgun and opened fire, killing him and wounding two bystanders: Tre Jamal Williams and Justine Cunningham, both 21-year-olds who attended Bethune-Cookman.
The shooting of the three young students was the latest incident in an unrelenting succession of gun violence affecting BCU. In a 12-month period starting in February 2015, three students were killed and 10 were wounded in four separate incidents. Those 13 students represent 30 percent of Daytona Beach’s total gun violence victims tally during that time period, during which 43 people were shot in the city, 10 of them fatally, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
By contrast, in 2014, no BCU students were shot, although a pair of shootings were recorded two blocks from campus that year, killing one and wounding two. One of the incidents involved a recent graduate who used an AK-47 to settle a quarrel with a former classmate.
The bloodshed began near the school’s music building on February 23, 2015, when two gunmen traded gunfire, wounding three students. Ladell Pleasure, a 21-year-old BCU student arrested for the shooting, has professed innocence; the second shooter has not been identified.
“You know this right here, this is unacceptable,” BCU student Roderick Dantzler told WFTV at the time. “This is a college. This is not street life. Not a jailhouse. This is a place for you to learn.”
But those shootings were only the beginning. Seven weeks later, on April 2, four BCU students — Reginald Graham, 20; Frank Thomas, 21; Darian Baker, 21; and Vintonisha Smith, 19 — were wounded outside a house six blocks from the university. The perpetrator, Vincent Smith, a 23-year-old gang member, opened fire on a crowd of 50 after being ejected from a party.
On September 17, Diona McDonald, 19, and Timesha Floyd-Carswell, 21, were fatally shot in the head at close range by their roommate at an apartment complex five miles from the school. Micah Parham, 21, lost an eye in the shooting. The attack was reportedly triggered by an argument over rent money that led to an attempted eviction. The suspect, 27-year-old York Bodden, hung himself in his jail cell.
“What he did in that apartment, he basically assassinated the young ladies,” Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood told WFTV.
According to a GoFundMe page set up in Floyd-Carswell’s name, she had left the Detroit suburb of Inkster, Michigan, a month earlier on a gospel choir scholarship. McDonald was a music major and former member of the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. When news of her death broke, the group was performing with songwriter Josh Groban.
“Just awful. Next time I sing with them, ‘you’ll never walk alone’ is for her,” he tweeted.
None of the shootings at the 112-year-old university are known to have stemmed from property crime or gang conflicts, and instead resulted from otherwise typical college arguments. Three of the four shootings took place off campus: 2,200 of the school’s 4,000 students live out of the purview of the school’s six-year-old in-house police force.
As the administration scrambles to prevent another shooting, many in the Bethune-Cookman community are sensitive to the possibility that the school might be stigmatized by the gunfire. At a campus memorial two days after Johnson’s death, Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson sounded fiercely protective of the school’s reputation and tasked his students with protecting it. “We have to make sure that no one tampers with the brand, and we’re going to spend some time talking to all of you about off-campus engagements,” he said.
“It’s sad that we’re perceived as being responsible for these shootings,” Derrick Matthews, a BCU spokesperson, tells The Trace. “We’re not even the closest university to these locations.”
He was referring to two private nonprofit universities, Keiser and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical, which are in fact closer the Indigo Lakes Golf Club, where Johnson was killed. But no other college in the area has shouldered such a disproportionate gun violence burden.
“It’s not a representation of [what] this university is about,” a student named Donald Watts told WFTV in September. “So I wouldn’t want that to be, like, a misconception.”
Bethune-Cookman was established in 1904 as the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, was the daughter of slaves. The school merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida 19 years later, becoming co-ed and bringing it under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church. Bethune-Cookman — now an NCAA Division 1 school that achieved university status in 2007 — has graduated several higher-education leaders, pioneering politicians, and civil rights champions.
It’s been almost a generation since the university experienced a similar spasm of gun violence. On February 12, 1993, three BCU students were fatally shot and another was wounded after an after-hours, on-campus altercation. In the eight months preceding their deaths, three BCU students had been shot and killed in separate incidents. One of the shootings, part of a retaliatory kidnapping in which one student was killed and another student was injured, was perpetrated by a BCU student.
“We have lost six people in a year,” Dr. Ann Taylor Green, the school’s vice president for student affairs, told the Miami Herald at the time, after one of the first in that string of shootings. “Even though it may be a sign of the times, it doesn’t help us understand any better.”
More than two decades later, reasons for the eruption of violence are just as elusive. In April, Jackson issued a reminder to the student body of the school’s prohibitions on drugs, fighting, and guns. And beginning next year, 600 students will move into two new on-campus residences. Matthews, the university spokesperson, says the additional housing will allow the administration to keep students “under our watchful eye” but cautioned against wishing for easy solutions.
“It’s not going to be fixed overnight,” Matthews says. “This is a national problem, not a Daytona Beach problem, and not a BCU problem. The gun culture in the U.S. needs to be addressed, period.”
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