Georgia Tech’s campus in downtown Atlanta.
It’s a little after 11 p.m. the evening of September 16 on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Situated in the heart of Midtown, Georgia Tech is a lively campus composed of rustic red brick buildings that stand alongside modern architecture, with vast green spaces around each corner. The school stands out from the surrounding industrial skyscrapers and businesses but is an open campus.
In response to a 911 call made shortly before, Georgia Tech police officers arrive outside of a parking garage to the scene of a potential threat. “White male, with long blond hair, white T-shirt and blue jeans who is possibly intoxicated, holding a knife and possibly armed with a gun on his hip,” as the caller, who identified themself as Scout Schultz, described.
Spotted. At least two officers draw their weapons and watch as the suspect slowly advances, pausing in between strides.
The encounter, captured on cellphone video, lasts less than two minutes. Officers attempt to physically barricade and verbally coerce the suspect, who continues to advance as the officers repeatedly demand that he drop the knife.
“Shoot me!” is the only reply. “Shoot me.” Another officer comes around to face the suspect, and attempts to persuade them to drop the weapon. A bright light is focused on the individual, who is still unidentified at this time, as they quickly approach and come to a halt. The officer asks for a name, but no reply. An officer off camera demands that the suspect does not move. Pause. Three bold steps forward. Gunshot fired. An agonizing scream.
It was Schultz. The fourth-year Georgia Tech student passed away a day later in the hospital at the age of 21.
Schultz was a leader within the Georgia Tech and Atlanta communities, remembered for their service as president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance (Schultz preferred the pronouns they/them). While a seemingly socially-involved individual, Schultz had a history battling depression; they attempted suicide in 2015 and underwent counseling following the event. After the fatal encounter with campus police, several suicide notes were discovered in their room, suggesting that Schultz could have been suffering from a state of mental instability.
“I feel very hurt because we’re trying to deal with the loss of a member that was striving to make this whole community better [through] acceptance for people of the LGBTQ community,” Georgia Tech freshman and Pride Alliance member Derek Camacho told the HPR.
Campus Police: Armed and Dangerous
Over the past decade, campus police have gained increasing power and jurisdiction. Georgia Tech is the newest addition to the long list of schools attempting to find an explanation.
The GTPD officers who reported to the scene were only equipped with guns, and did not carry any non-lethal means of subduing individuals, such as a taser or stun gun. “That’s baffling to me that on a college campus you’d rather give the officers the most deadly weapons and not equip them with less lethal weapons,” the Schultz family attorney, L. Chris Stewart, told the Washington Post.
GTPD’s mission is “to strive for excellence and integrity in providing a safe and secure environment and instilling confidence in the Georgia Tech community.” The school’s police force focuses its attention around ensuring student and campus safety above all. But what happens when a student is a threat? Representatives for GTPD declined to comment.
Georgia Tech director of media relations and issues management Lance Wallace replied to the HPR’s request for an interview with Officer Joshua Strully, stating that he “is not able to participate in an interview at this time.” Wallace told the HPR that as it is a “developing situation with an open investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and it would be premature for him to discuss any elements of the case until the investigation has concluded.”
The confrontation with Schultz opens the doors for discussion on whether GTPD’s response was suitable for the situation. “The police department should have some training in dealing with mental issues like depression or if they’re going through some sort of psychotic break or manic [episode],” Camacho said. He continued by saying the police officers likely acted out of “fear” since they had no experience with a situation involving mental health—it was “unknown to them.”
Issues have risen on other campuses around the nation in regards to what is considered an appropriate role for college police forces. In 2015, the University of Cincinnati faced a similar issue when Ray Tensing, one of 72 gun-carrying members of the school’s police department, shot 43-year-old African-American Samuel DuBose at a routine traffic stop. Many argue that the scope of campus police power should be smaller, especially on campuses in locations with existing law enforcement. Joe Deters, Cincinnati’s prosecutor, said of campus police officers: “they’re not cops, and we have a great police department in Cincinnati, probably the best in Ohio.”
According to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2011-12, police officers “with full arrest powers to provide law enforcement services” can be found at over two-thirds of college and university campuses in the nation. The national rate of violent crime decreased by 27 percent since 2004, yet there was an increase in schools’ uses of both sworn officers and armed officers.
The violent crime rate is four times lower on college and university campuses, providing point of debate over whether the power of campus security is justified. Despite the lower crime rate, campus police forces have grown more powerful over the past decade. “It used to be [that] we were responsible for the campus,” Jeff Corcoran, interim chief of the University of Cincinnati police force, said in 2013. “We’re getting pushed to ignore those imaginary lines on the map and be more proactive in that area,” he added, referring to the regions outside of the designated campus.
Some universities, including the University of Maryland and Eastern Michigan University, have hired additional officers to patrol off-campus areas. Arming officers to allow for increased protection has been a common conversation among institutions for years, but incidents like the death of Schultz at Tech show the potential costs of such initiative.
Because GTPD are equipped only with dangerous, often lethal weapons like pepper spray and firearms, they face an ultimatum to “shoot or be shot” in potentially dangerous encounters.
While police may act with the best intentions in a split moment decision, families of victims are still left with unanswered questions and the burden of loss. “Why did you have to shoot? That’s the question. I mean, that’s the only question that matters right now,” Bill Schultz, Scout’s father, said in a news conference.
Counseling on Campus
Schultz’s history facing mental health issues has been a confounding factor in the events leading to their death. In addition to opening investigation regarding the campus police, the school is under scrutiny for its counseling and other preventative measures. “Scout just needed some real help,” Camacho said. “Georgia Tech isn’t really prepared to deal with mental illnesses.”
The Georgia Tech Counseling Center is the main facility that addresses mental illness on campus. Its resources, available to all full-time students, range from academic aid to both individual and group therapy. On September 26, the center released a statement confirming that the center is in the process of filling four vacancies for counseling staff, but has five part-time staff working to compensate in the meantime.
In 2012, Georgia Tech expanded the mental health roles of five full-time employees contracted the remainder of the staff to clinical hours meant only for students. With this change, the program “has increased the number of students who are accessing services by almost 300 percent,” according to the Counseling Center.
Even though the school made an effort to improve its counseling system, a gap in its outreach to students has been evident. “The only thing that I’ve seen on campus is the crisis line, and then we have counselors,” Camacho said. “I heard news that some time ago we had lost four of the top counselors in our counseling center and that we haven’t really hired new ones.”
Camacho said the institution contacted students immediately after the shooting that environments open to discussion and healing would be made available as a resource for students. Camacho also explained that certain professors and peer leaders offered personal time for conversation with students who needed support, but that the school wasn’t sufficiently handling the situation. “This school is really intense in the kind of workload that they give their students, so having students continue their classes despite what was going on the past few days is hard for those who are grieving or are scared about what’s going on right now at their school,” Camacho said.
While he later stated that at least one of his professors decided to postpone an exam to allow students time to grieve, as far as Camacho is aware, this was not a school-wide implementation.
In response to student criticism and concerns, on September 27, Georgia Tech decided to budget an additional $1 million for mental health services.
Learning from Tragedy
While it remains unclear how GTPD, Georgia Tech, and its Counseling Center intend to react to Schultz’s situation, the school is nonetheless seeking improvement. Beyond Georgia Tech’s attempts to prevent future tragedy, the responses from the Schultz family, Tech’s student body, and the greater community have clearly defined where individuals stand on the issues of mental illness and police force.
A violent protest broke out following the vigil held for Schultz, resulting in three arrests with many criminal charges. The demonstration, which included at least 50 protesters, left two officers with minor injuries, and one who was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital with a head injury. The three suspects responsible for the violence burned a police vehicle, physical assaulted officers and used a smoke bomb.
The family responded to the protest through a statement that reads, “On behalf of the family of Scout Schultz, we ask that those who wish to protest Scout’s death do so peacefully. Answering violence with violence is not the answer.”
Camacho also advocated for peace. “We’re trying to promote our cause through peace and not through violence,” he said. “I feel like Scout was also trying to promote their ideas through peaceful protesting and not through violent riots.”
Accompanying his hurt over the passing of Schultz, Camacho stated that he is “also very angry about some of the responses that the death of Scout Schultz has incited.” A Facebook page created after the incident was full of hate messages posted by Tech students specifically targeting Schultz. Some posted comments that Schultz’s death was “Making the world a better place without people like that.”
“People aren’t really getting the message that we’re trying to send of peace, that everywhere in the world, it doesn’t matter who you fall in love with but it matters who you’re trying to be,” Camacho said. “But this incident … the way that people are reacting to it makes me feel like it’s tarnishing who we are as a community because we’re refusing to make changes.”
In light of sadness over the death of Schultz, the community is surging forward with positivity. The family’s courageous steps towards peace and understanding in the eye of the public have set the tone for a peaceful statement in the aftermath of ultimate loss. Rather than vengeful backlash, individuals such as Camacho feel the need to call for united strength now more so than ever. “I feel like this entire incident to our community as a whole is not really a totally destructive one,” says Camacho. “We will stand strong through this and remain united against its tragedy.”
Image Credit: Joseph Zollo, Wikimedia Commons