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I don’t recall personally meeting Edith Rojas, one of more than 11,000 students enrolled at Bronx Community College. What I do know is that she had completed her third semester and had registered for the upcoming spring semester in pursuit of an associate degree, preparing to be a medical office assistant.
Those plans were suddenly halted when she was killed in front of her Manhattan apartment building on New Year’s Eve, the city’s last violent crime victim in 2012. The suspect in her fatal stabbing was an ex-boyfriend with whom, reportedly, she had broken off because he was “interfering” with her studies.
The circumstances surrounding her tragic death are all too familiar to college administrators. Intimate-partner or domestic violence is a virus that makes its way into our student populations—at colleges and universities large and small, private, public, urban and rural—often undetected until it is too late. Young women bear the brunt of the crime. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate-partner violence.
As president of Bronx Community College, my number-one priority is delivering on our promise to prepare students to move on to four-year colleges or into productive careers. We are committed to fostering a learning experience where students can thrive. Intimate-partner violence is among the most traumatizing of obstacles that too often get in their way. Depression sets in. Students who haven’t yet developed the maturity to handle the drama and turmoil may succumb to substance abuse. Attendance declines. Grades suffer. They drop out.
Reaching out to help
Effectively addressing the alarming incidence of domestic violence among our student population—as evidenced by too many reports of stalking, threats, physical, emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives and exes—calls for solutions far beyond our means. Yet we must try.
At the start of the next semester I will again drive home a message urging any student—or staff member, for that matter—in a relationship that is physically or emotionally threatening to immediately reach out to campus public safety. Stalking, for example, is something that many young people are reluctant to report because they don’t believe it will be considered a crime. But our public safety “peace officers” know otherwise. A study by the National Center for Victims of Crime found that 76 percent of women killed by intimate partners had been stalked by their killers.
I am proud that our peace officers are specially trained to sensitively and respectfully handle the many domestic-related incidents that have put some of the women and men on our campus at risk. They have driven frightened students home, escorted them to their local precincts to file complaints, and intervened in ways that have saved lives.
The forces at play that led to Edith Rojas’ death demand a huge sociocultural shift that goes far beyond the power of any one college president or group of college presidents to change. Yet I deeply mourn the loss of a student whose expressed desire was to remain focused on her studies and towards her future. That’s the kind of commitment we want from all of our students, and, as a college administrator, I am committed to doing what I can to help protect and nurture them as they pursue their academic dreams.
Berotte Joseph is president of Bronx Community College (New York) and a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges