Bunce Hall / Photo by Damian Biniek

A campus united in loss finds strength, and changes for the better

By Kristen Stenerson 
The Donnie Project
GLASSBORO — Donnie Farrell wasn’t the first Rowan University student to die violently, or too young, or under tragic circumstances. But his loss was — is — felt deeply throughout the campus, by those who knew him personally and by those who never met him.
The days and weeks following his death were a time of sorrow and reverberating chaos across the campus. But in some ways, it  forced a dynamic set of changes on the Rowan community.
While there’s no permanent memorial to Farrell on campus, no official reminder of his life as a student here, the changes wrought by his death are present every day.
Not long after Farrell’s death early on Oct. 28, 2007, news spread on campus via an Owl Alert, Rowan’s then brand-new text messaging alert system, to those subscribed and then by word of mouth.

“That might have been the first time we used the text message alert,” said Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona, who said subscriptions were less than 50 percent of the student body at the time. “It went up to 80 percent weeks after that, but then it quickly dropped off as that class graduated.”

Today, students and employees sign up for the service when they enroll, and the university interacts with its community on a number of social media platforms.

Gavin Farber, 25, was a senior studying journalism at the time of Farrell’s attack. That night, he had returned early from a Halloween party, and later got the school’s email.

“Most people found out that way, or they watched the news,” said Farber, now 25, of Ewing. “The news vans were there the next day.”

As news of Farrell’s attack and death spread, discussions began about how safe students really are at the steadily-expanding suburban school, which sits miles from the kind of big-city crime that plagues some area campuses.

“I got a lot of phone calls that weekend — Are you safe? Are you OK? What’s going on? ” said Farber.

When investigators released a description of the person of interest, the Rowan campus was turned upside down amidst the mourning of a loss of their own. The description shows a black male in his 20s,  about 5’7″ with dreadlocks and wearing a distinctive red-and-gray hoodie. An eye-catching piece of clothing, for sure, but still only a general description.

“Now there’s a witch hunt on campus,” said Cardona of the days immediately following the murder. “Every single guy with dreadlocks gets pulled over, gets a look, gets asked, ‘Hmm where were you Saturday night?’ Now we have racial tension on campus.”

It wasn’t a familiar feeling at Rowan, originally the Glassboro Normal School and later Glassboro State College.

While overall minority enrollment hovers around 22 percent, the school has had an active African-American Greek community since the 1930s, with eight of the “Divine Nine” National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternities and sororities represented today. The campus has had a Black Cultural League organization since the 1950s; an annual Black Alumni Reunion draws hundreds of families to campus.

Still, suspicions in the following days began to rise.

Two days later, former University President Dr. Donald J Farish called the entire campus community together for an emergency meeting. Concerns burst forth as African-American students spoke out against racism and profiling they felt they were facing as a result of the police search for the person of interest in the case.

“They were feeling under the microscope in that short time,” said Cardona. The loss of Farrell touched the lives of those who knew him personally and not at all. The shock of the situation was met with confusion and concern by students and parents.

“That first week was very tense,” said Farber. “But Rowan became itself again. It came back stronger and much more vibrant with more school spirit.”

One of the most major significant changes Rowan made was an increase in the number of police officers and a decrease in the number of campus security officers, who have different training and powers.

“Historically, the campus was mainly security officers with a few police officers,” said Director of Public Safety Michael Kantner, a 30-year police veteran previously with the Camden force. “That changed.  Now we have more police officers than we do security officers.”

Many of the changes began under Kantner’s predecessor, Dr. Timothy Michener, who had started at Rowan in 2002. Michener died of cancer in 2009, but not before the campus police grew from a handful of security workers to about 22 officers.

The differences between the two fall on the training the police officers receive. Police officers go through more than 20 weeks of academy training and are then certified with the full powers of a sworn police officer — including to arrest and to use force if necessary.
Security officers attend training but have limited powers. They don’t carry weapons, nor can they make arrests.

“College campuses in these times benefit more by having a police department than by having a security department  because you have the ability of those officers to do things,” said Kantner.

“Before I got here, police officers weren’t allowed to carry guns. That was foreign to me,” said Kantner. “In 2008 or 2009 they changed that. This university has come a long way, but for the better.” Officers have more and better equipment, training and weapons, two K9 officers, and campus patrols on bicycles and Segways.

The changes that took place at Rowan weren’t all security-related.

The Whit's Oct. 30, 2007 edition

Students, too, took steps to remember Farrell, and to create positive alternatives to the beer-fueled college party life. For several months on the date of the attack, the student government gave out brightly-colored T-shirts memorializing his death.
Another student effort born in the wake of the Farrell tragedy lives on today as a popular ongoing campus program.
Prior to graduating in 2008, Farber was an active member of the student government at Rowan. In the fall of 2007, he was part of a small group of undergrads to form the Rowan After Hours Program.
“It was an alternative program for students to get out,” said Farber.
When it began in 2008, Rowan After Hours had a $50,000 budget, according to Farber. In its first semester, the program was scheduled for 10 Thursday nights in a row, from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. It’s going strong today.
The racial tensions abated, and investigators said they believed the attacker wasn’t student. As time wore on, the case faded from headlines and the investigation stalled.

But the campus is always at work to build better relationships.
Olanrewaju Odunlani, 22 of Pennsauken, is a senior studying entrepreneurship and business. Odunlani came to Rowan in 2008 and has been the president of the campus Black Cultural League for the last two years.
“We’re called the Black Cultural League, but don’t just cater to only black students on campus, he said. “That name drives people away from it who are not black students, but it’s definitely to build cultural awareness amongst all races.”
Even with a strong and vibrant community, there  is still work to be done.
“You still feel a little bit alone when you’re in classrooms and you see that there’s only one black student in there,” said Odunlani.
One change that Odunlani has seen recently is the increase in African American and Hispanic students enrolling into Rowan through the Educational Opportunity Fund. Odunlani came in through the program and worked in the office for two years, getting to know many of the students who came in through the program.

Once, he said, he knew almost all the black students on campus. This year, there were new faces of color, more people he didn’t recognize.
As an institution of higher learning, immediately following the murder of Donnie Farrell, Rowan quickly took steps to ease the concerns of students and parents in regards to their safety. The University worked quickly to release its 14-point public safety action plan.
“People still want an action plan. The public still want to know you’re doing things,” said Cardona. “That action plan turned into about 36 points. The 18 was good, and we sent out a news letter, but it quickly grew.”
Items on the plan included improved lighting on walkways, a 911 system that can detect the exact room and location where the call was being placed, and the formation of a threat assessment team. Red-light cameras now capture every car that travels down Route 322, which slices through the campus.
“We’re a major university, we are a city, we have over 12,000 students. Donnie Farrell was an important time to take pause and made us take a look at the campus, but all the different improvements on that 36 points aren’t related to that. They’re more related to general university safety,” said Cardona.
Some of the changes were already in the works, Cardona said, inspired by the Virginia Tech shooting massacre the previous spring. It caused schools nationwide to reassess security and crisis response protocols.
Not all of the changes stuck, however. The Safe Walk and Ride program, created in 2007, was meant to provide students an escort vehicle to campus destinations when they felt unsafe. 

“The  intention of it was good but from 2008 to 2009 you could see that it wasn’t being effective. I started hearing comments that it was being abused. The cars that were assigned to it were not in the safest condition,” said Kantner.
Taking its place was the creation of a 13-stop bus shuttle service to bring students to where they needed to be on campus. There’s also a walking escort service.
The Farrell murder also forced the school to enhance its strategic relationships with local police and government agencies like the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office and the state Office of Emergency Management.
“I don’t believe they were as strong. We were more security oriented than police oriented. Rowan was in a cocoon-type thing,” said Kantner. “There was relationship with the Glassboro police department but not a good one.”
In March of 2010, the Rowan University Department of Public Safety became the first college department to gain national accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. It’s a particular point of pride for Kantner.
“There are about 464 mandates that this department of public safety will adhere to to ensure that we’re providing best service possible,” said Kantner. “It means we’re committed to excellence. We strive to maintain that commitment every day.”

Kristen Stenerson is a graduating Rowan senior currently looking for a job in journalism.

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