WTOC Investigates: Savannah State University sees spike in drug cases

WTOC Investigates: Savannah State University sees spike in drug cases
(Source: WTOC)

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Drugs on college campuses is a challenge nationwide, but according to annual safety and security information, Savannah State University has recently seen a large spike in drug-related incidents.

We sat down with SSU Police Chief James Barnwell to discuss the data and find out why. He says the numbers may seem alarming, but it's not the full story.

When you pass through the gates to enter Savannah State University, it is supposed to be a drug-free campus. However, students say that's not always the case. Ali Davis is a Senior at SSU who says it's not uncommon to occasionally smell marijuana on a student.

"I know people that use marijuana every day and they say it calms them down and stuff like that," Davis said.

In 2015, Savannah State had two judicial referrals to its Student Government Association related to drug abuse violations. In 2016, those drug abuse violations skyrocketed to 143 referrals.

Chief Barnwell says the spike is a result of community engagement. He says his department launched a program called the 'Blue Promise' on campus to engage students, faculty, and staff to do their part to make SSU safer. Barnwell says students are contacting the police department with tips on drugs which contributed to the sharp increase.

"They really and truly want a safe environment because they're coming here for an education and not to be interrupted or disturbed by, for lack of a better word, juvenile behavior or risky behavior," Chief Barnwell said.

Not all students think drug violators should be referred to the Student Government's Judicial Review Board. James Lenoir is a student at SSU and says he would like to see stricter punishments.

"Become more strict and set an example. When someone does get caught with something, they need to be either kicked out or expelled. Once that happens, that will start a culture and a change here," Lenoir said.

Punishment for students found guilty by the SSU Judicial Review Board can range from a warning to community service to suspension. SSU Student Government Chief Justice Malik Bradley says when deciding a case, the review board wants to know if the student understands the severity of the situation.

"We try our best not to close the door for a student not to have an opportunity for an education. Our campus is no different than any other campus in America when it comes to drugs, but one thing that we try to enforce is you will be held accountable for your actions," Bradley said.

WTOC compared other local schools' drug law violations that lead to referral in 2015 and 2016.

Chief Barnwell says his staff will arrest people sometimes because of the amount of drugs confiscated, so not everyone gets a hearing with the Student Government Association.

"We know that we can't totally eliminate drugs from basically any community, but as soon as we are made aware of it, we try to address it in a timely manner," the chief said. "All of my tenure, I've been making deposits into the community policing bank and the 'Blue Promise' is basically a withdrawal and a return on my investment, and thus far, it has been successful and it has been working."

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