ORANGEBURG -- South Carolina State University senior Harold Rickenbacker still is grieving for fellow student Brandon Robinson, who was shot to death on campus 10 days ago.
But Rickenbacker and many other students said last week that heaped on top of their grief is the worry that the intense media attention on the shooting will be a setback for the reputation of the school, which is just getting back on its feet after years of turmoil.
Robinson, 20, was shot in the neck and declared dead at a hospital on Jan. 24. Justin Bernard Singleton, a 19-year-old S.C. State student from Charleston, was charged with murder in connection with the shooting, and four others have been charged with accessory after the fact of murder.
The university over the past several years has struggled with declining enrollment and financial shortfalls. It also is involved in an ongoing public corruption case that led to the arrests of a former board chairman, board member and chief of police.
S.C. State President Thomas Elzey said his administration is in the process of reviewing how the university responded to the shooting, and he said criticism about a delayed campus lockdown was unwarranted.
He was on campus when the shooting occurred, he said. He received a text message and immediately went to the Hugine Suites, where the incident occurred. When he arrived, Robinson was in an ambulance and law enforcement officers had cordoned off the crime scene. Officers told him that five people, including Singleton, had arrived in a car, and that they fled in that car after the shooting.
There was no reason to lock down the campus at that point, Elzey said, But later that afternoon, after he returned to his office, the campus police chief told him officers had found the car abandoned off-campus. They were afraid the shooter and the others would return to campus, he said, so they initiated the lockdown then.
The lockdown was not as solid as it should have been, Elzey said. Some professors let students leave classes, and other students were seen walking across campus. "There was minor movement," he said, but there shouldn't have been any. During a lockdown, people are supposed to stay where they are, lock the doors and turn out all lights and music.
"We've got to tighten that up," Elzey said.
School leaders also will discuss whether to make it mandatory for students to sign up for a campus alert system. Right now, enrollment in that system is optional.
Elzey said he and his wife, who live on campus, spent a great deal of time in the days following the shooting talking with students. He said he hasn't heard any negative responses from students on how the matter was handled, and students tell him they feel safe on campus.
However, at least a few students said they were bothered by the fact that they learned of the shooting on social media before they received official notice from the school.
Luis Figueroa, 22, said he heard of the incident from a friend. Though he said he was not fearful for his safety, he voiced frustration over what he estimated was a 20-minute delay between the shooting and the moment he received a university-issued statement.
"I found out about it before I got the text or email I'm supposed to get," Figueroa said.
The incident, though tragic, "was a one-on-one beef between those guys," Elzey said. Rumors have circulated that the incident was gang-related, drug-related or that it involved a fight over a woman, he said. "But none of those have been substantiated."
The comprehensive review of how the school handled the shooting should be done in about a week, he said. "We will learn from this. We're coming out of this stronger and stronger."
Robinson's death hit close to home for Rickenbacker. Both are from Orangeburg and attended Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School. Both were majoring in engineering, and lived in the Andrew Hugine Suites Living and Learning Community on campus. They even traveled to Toronto together when they were in high school to attend a National Society for Black Engineers conference. "He was a humble spirit, a nice guy,"`Rickenbacker said.
The headlines about the shooting added to his despair, Rickenbacker said. He thinks the school often isn't portrayed in a positive light when "we have so many students doing positive things." A shooting, though unfortunate and tragic, could happen anywhere, he said,
The school made a lot of changes in the last year, including hiring Elzey as its president and replacing several administrators and board members, and those changes were starting to pay off, he said.
Rickenbacker has been an orientation leader since his freshman year. Usually, the fall orientation for students planning to start in the spring semester draws about 20 students, he said. This fall, more than 200 students showed up. "That was great for me," he said. "That's how I know our initiatives are working."
Qiana Arnold, a senior from Detroit, called the shooting heartbreaking. "We lost two students and two mothers lost their sons," she said.
Things on campus are beginning to get back to normal, she said. Students last Wednesday took advantage of the snow day to blow off some steam over the recent trauma with a campuswide snowball fight, she said.
Andrew McCray, a senior from Paterson, N.J., said the school was making great strides, but he's afraid the shooting will set everything back. He did an Internet search for coverage of the shooting soon after it happened, and said he was shocked at how many media outlets, in the region and nationally, picked up the story.
All students interviewed for this story said they felt safe on the campus.
All the students were affected by Robinson's death, but because he was a football player, it was especially tough on his teammates.
S.C. State wide receiver Tyler McDonald, who graduated from Stratford High School, didn't know Robinson well, but felt the loss just the same.
"He's wasn't my best friend on the team, but of course, he was my teammate, so he was like a brother to me like all of my teammates," McDonald said. "I don't think it's going to hit me until the funeral," McDonald said last week. "It's kind of surreal right now, like it didn't happen. It's almost like I'm numb right now. It's such a sad, sad tragedy for the team and the university."
Robinson's funeral was held Saturday in Orangeburg.
McDonald, who is working out in Charlotte in preparation for the NFL draft, wasn't on campus for the shooting, but he was a pallbearer at the funeral.
"I was up in Charlotte when it happened. I was shocked when I heard," McDonald said. "To lose a friend like that, a teammate, a guy who was in the trenches everyday with you grinding it out, it hurts. I'm sure when it hits me it'll hit me pretty hard that he's gone."
Bulldogs head coach Buddy Pough declined to comment on the incident.
Jack Bass, an author of books about the American South, is familiar with S.C. State. He wrote a book about what's now known as the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers fired into a crowd of protesters on the S.C. State campus demonstrating against segregation at a local bowling alley. Three people were killed and 28 were injured.
Bass said he thinks the recent shooting was an incident that could happen anywhere. "When people carry guns, people get shot," he said.
S.C. State also was the site of a fatal shooting in 2011, when police said three men met on campus for a drug deal. A student, 22-year-old Jonathan Bailey, was killed.
Michael Allen, who graduated from S.C. State in 1982, has a daughter who is a sophomore at the university. Allen, who is president of the university's Charleston alumni chapter, said that on the day of the shooting, he was leaving a meeting in Columbia when his daughter called him and told him about the incident. He drove to campus and was in his daughter's dorm room in the Hugine Suites when the campus was locked down.
Sirens were going off and a helicopter was circling the campus. "For me, who spent four years there, it was an eerie feeling."
Allen brought his daughter home for the weekend, but he said he had no fear for her safety when he returned her to campus a few days later. "This is the time and season we live in in this country," he said. A shooting incident can happen anywhere. "I told my daughter, 'Don't live in fear but be cognizant of your surroundings.'"
Andrew Miller and Cynthia Roldan contributed to this report.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
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