Hopkins impresses with candor on killing

Tragedy: The Baltimore university's prompt and heartfelt response to a student's death impresses prospective students and their parents.

April 25, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Perched before 230 high school students he hopes will attend his university this fall, Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody began a presentation Thursday by telling them one of his students had been brutally killed.

It seemed an odd way to start, some of the prospective students and their parents would later say. But they listened as Brody described how a burglar entered a fraternity house through an open door, came upon Christopher Elser and attacked him.

The April 17 stabbing of the junior from South Carolina - the first homicide in Charles Village since November 2000 - serves as a stark reminder to prospective students and their parents that if they choose to attend Johns Hopkins, they are opting to go to school in one of the most violent cities in America.

"That's an admissions officer's nightmare," said John Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford University and a counselor at San Francisco University High School.

The killing came just three weeks after nearly 2,900 students were accepted to attend Johns Hopkins in the fall. By Saturday, they must decide where they will go. Typically, 35 percent of those admitted decide to attend Johns Hopkins.

There's no definitive way to measure how the stabbing has affected Hopkins' standing among high school students until more of their decisive deposits start arriving at the school. Over the past week, about a dozen prospective students called the admissions office to inquire about safety, one with "great concern," said William T. Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services.

But if Thursday's "Spring Welcome for Accepted Students" at Hopkins' Homewood campus was any indication, the school should be just fine. That's partly because students - and, even more so, parents - liked the candor of campus officials. "I was impressed that [Brody] brought that up at the beginning," said Laurie Smits, a Worcester, Mass., resident whose son Jonathan is deciding among Hopkins and two other colleges. She said the murder will have no impact on her son's choice.

University officials said their candor was a natural response, but that doesn't mean it's common. For years, there have been allegations that some universities underreport their crime statistics, and that others - particularly private colleges - tend to say as little as possible.

For example, there's the case of a Baltimore student killed this month at Hampton University in Virginia. Students there continue to complain that image-conscious university officials have done their best to stifle news of the incident.

On April 7, Christopher Weaver - a Gilman School graduate and the grandson of Alice Pinderhughes, Baltimore's first female superintendent of schools - was shot and killed in his off-campus apartment.

It was the second killing this school year of a student at Hampton - which, like Hopkins, is a prestigious, private school with a beautiful campus. Also as at Hopkins, nearly all upperclassmen live off campus.

A week after the killing, officials at Hampton had not sent an e-mail or posted news of the incident on the school's Web site, students there said. The school has not held a memorial service for Weaver.

Some Hampton students said they learned of Weaver's death days later from news reports. A university spokeswoman said Thursday that the school was in the process of notifying students, weeks after the fact.

"They're really concerned about reputation and the school's good name," Hampton junior Paul Bromley said, explaining why campus officials didn't spread the news.

Dean of Students Bennie McMorris Jr. said Hampton leaves it to students to organize events such as memorial services. Other Hampton officials did not respond to repeated attempts to seek their reaction to the criticism they have received.

At Hopkins, events unfolded much differently.

Elser was attacked shortly before 6 a.m. April 17, inside an apartment building rented to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on the southwest corner of St. Paul and 30th streets.

Later that day, the dean of students sent an e-mail to all faculty, staff and students at the Homewood campus, informing them of the attack.

That night at the Johns Hopkins-University of Maryland lacrosse game, the crowd was asked to pause for a moment of silence. The next day, when Elser died from his injuries, Brody sent an e-mail to the Hopkins community. "It is beyond understanding," he wrote.

On Tuesday, officials held a memorial service in the Keyser Quadrangle.

Officials are planning a town meeting to discuss safety.

By reacting so swiftly, Johns Hopkins officials made the attack look like a tragedy that was terribly out of the ordinary, even in a city where 250-plus people are killed each year.

Those who know the college admissions process applaud that approach.

"You're showing you take a humanistic approach and you care about the kids," said Marybeth Kravets, a high school counselor in suburban Chicago and the former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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