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Bethune-Cookman Students Still Reeling From A Year That Saw 13 Shooting Victims

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay in Florida to hear about a particular community that struggled with gun violence, It's Bethune-Cookman University. The summer session has started, but students at that historically-black school in Daytona Beach are still reeling from a school year that saw more than a dozen students shot. From our Code Switch team, Renata Sago from member station WMFE reports.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) I hear them angels calling to me. Keep in the middle of the midway. I want to thank you Lord...

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: All eyes in the Bethune-Cookman University courtyard are fixed on a group of polished young men and women in white shirts and maroon blazers. They're lined up neatly in front of trustees and alumni. A tall brick building towers over them, the Thomas and Joyce Hanks Moorehead Residential Life Center. Their voices echo.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Don't you look to the right. Don't you look to the left. But keep in the middle of the midway...

SAGO: Moments like these are what led Jauniece Lane to Cookman from Detroit. Her voice got her a scholarship to come sing in the choir. And the small family atmosphere at this historically-black university has gotten her to stay. So has this new residence hall.

JAUNIECE LANE: I'm relived for the new dorms for safety. That's the first reason, safety.

SAGO: Safety is a growing concern for Cookman because in the past year, three students were fatally shot off-campus. One was Diona McDonald, Jauniece Lane's best friend.

LANE: We came here together. We came from the same high school, so it's like I lost a sister. When she passed away, I was like I just have to get away, which is crazy because it's more dangerous back at home where I'm from.

SAGO: Cookman is known for taking kids with potential out of struggling neighborhoods where college is considered a privilege and a respite from violence.

MIKE CHITWOOD: You send your kid to college, OK? And then you get a phone call from a detective at 2 o'clock in the morning to tell you that your daughter's dead. I sat in on one of those calls.

SAGO: Mike Chitwood is chief of police for Daytona Beach. He says this past year has been bad for shootings. Forty people have been shot; twice as many as the year before. Thirteen victims were Cookman students. None of the shooters were.

BONISHA PORTER: It's disheartening.

SAGO: Bonisha Porter is Cookman's dean of students. Right now just over half live off-campus. Porter spent the past few months moving some students back onto campus to keep them safe. She feels that the media is wrongly blaming Cookman for the violence.

PORTER: Our students - they were friends with the students who were affected by the shootings. They weren't the aggressors. And I just would like to see more support that fact.

SAGO: And while students are more now more afraid, Porter is quick to say she knows of no students who have left because of the shootings. They love the school, and they're loyal. But that solidarity may be a gift and a curse, says Cookman faculty member Chris Shaw. He first came to this campus in 2000 as a student from Chicago.

CHRIS SHAW: Growing up in the city, gun violence was an everyday thing. When I got here, it changed my whole mentality.

SAGO: At Cookman, Shaw learned the meaning of community. But off-campus, he witnessed a strange relationship between local residents and the school.

SHAW: I remember my freshman year. It used to be the "fear," in quotation. Don't bother anybody in the community, the community won't bother us. Then it used to be oh, you go to Bethune? Oh, you're a Cookman student? Oh man, you think you're better than everybody - blah, blah, blah, this.

SAGO: Nearly two decades later, Shaw says that tension is still there. And as Cookman grows, so does its reach into a community that mirrors the same struggling neighborhoods that many students left behind. He says it's time for Cookman to get smarter about how it relates to the local community.

For soon-to-be junior Jauniece Lane, she trusts that things will get better and says she'd still recommend Cookman.

LANE: I go home every year, talk to my high school, try to get them to come here as possible because it's a great institution.

SAGO: And Cookman is ready to welcome a new class. It expects to have over a thousand new beds this fall. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Daytona Beach, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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