At UNC Pembroke, frustrations about safety reach fever pitch following shootings

By Rachel Baldauf 

Their faces illuminated by electric candlelight, students at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke wept as they gathered for the second time in less than a month to remember a friend who was shot and killed. 

Cameron Taylor, 22, was killed in a March 2 mass shooting when a fight broke out at The Commons at Pembroke, an off-campus apartment complex about a mile from the university. Nicholas Logan, a 19-year-old who was not a UNC Pembroke student, was also killed, and four others were injured, including two students. 

At a memorial for Taylor on March 12, friends and family tearfully remembered him as charismatic and smart. He had the highest GPA in his fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi, and he had recently been accepted into the university’s nursing program. 

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“He was just a light and joy into everybody’s day,” said Jonny Lewis, Taylor’s fraternity brother who was shot in the foot the night Taylor died and was still wearing a walking boot on the day of the memorial. 

The shooting rattled the UNC Pembroke community that was still reeling from the death of 19-year-old Khalil Alford. Alford, who previously attended UNC Pembroke but was no longer enrolled, was shot and killed on Feb. 7 at the on-campus University Courtyard Apartments. 

A choir performs during a memorial for Cameron Taylor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke on March 12.

For some students and parents, both incidents brought to a head longtime frustrations about safety on campus and in Robeson County. Plagued by poverty, drugs and guns, Robeson typically has the highest violent crime rate in the state.

UNC Pembroke, which serves about 8,300 students, has referred 12 students for disciplinary action for having illegal weapons on campus since 2020, data shows. That’s more than the combined total at N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill, which both have more than triple the enrollment.

In an interview with the Border Belt Independent last week, UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings also expressed frustrations about gun violence. “The safety of our students and this campus is paramount, equal to our desire to educate,” he said. “But in today’s world, we’ve got to realize that there’s a societal issue with too many guns.”

Following the March 2 shooting, the university asked Pembroke police and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office to increase patrols at off-campus apartment complexes. The Pembroke Town Council also granted the university’s police department shared jurisdiction of three off-campus apartment buildings —  Pembroke Pointe, The Commons at Pembroke and 698 Prospect. Campus police have also started patrolling a fourth complex, The View at Pembroke, that remains under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office.

Campus police plan to conduct random traffic stops on roads where off-campus apartments are located, said Gabriel Eszterhas, the vice chancellor for administration who oversees the campus police department.

UNC Pembroke’s police department has 20 officers and is hoping to hire four more, said Jennifer McCarrel, chief communications and marketing officer for the school. The Pembroke Police Department has fewer officers. Pembroke Police Chief Adrian Hunt did not return multiple phone calls from the BBI

Three students huddle in prayer at UNC Pembroke following a candlelight vigil honoring Cameron Taylor. Photo by Ben Rappaport

University administrators are considering other measures, including equipping campus buildings with swipe-card locks and having live-in police officers at off-campus apartment complexes, Eszterhas said. The school has also hired additional contract officers for security at on-campus events. 

Cummings said the university now enforces a zero-tolerance policy for students who have more than three guests over at dorms and on-campus housing and has encouraged nearby apartment complexes to adopt similar policies. 

‘It’s exhausting’

But some say the university should have taken action long ago to address safety concerns. 

“It’s ridiculous that my daughter has lived there for three years now, and that they’re finally noticing after someone gets killed,” said B.J. Lockamy Bass, whose daughter, a junior, lives at an off-campus apartment building. 

Two UNC Pembroke students told the Pembroke Town Council in December that more needed to be done to keep students safe after someone fired rounds from an assault-style rifle in the courtyard at 698 Prospect. 

“A student is going to die,” one of the students said, The Robesonian reported. “I feel like the adults who are supposed to be keeping me safe are not keeping me safe.” 

Some students and parents also said the university should have communicated more effectively during the shootings. Freshmen Donovan Andrews and Devin Brooks both said they learned about the March shooting through the anonymous social media app YikYak before receiving official notice from the university. 

Brooks said his sister lives in the University Courtyard Apartments, where the February shooting took place. “Why was the notice so late?” he said. “My sister could’ve been dead at that point and I wouldn’t have known.”

UNC Pembroke sent a message through its BraveAlert system about the February shooting 27 minutes after the initial call came into campus police dispatch, said Jennifer McCarrel, chief communications and marketing officer for the school. The university did not issue a BraveAlert right away following the March shooting because the incident did not occur on campus, she said.

Dr. Kyle Smith, dean of students at UNC Pembroke, delivers remarks at the vigil for Cameron Taylor. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Signs reading “See Something, Say Something” were posted around campus last week, encouraging students to make anonymous reports about criminal activity. Still, avoiding violence can feel like an uphill battle. 

“Just to be straight up, it’s exhausting,” said Raven Hanning, a junior and the editor-in-chief of The Pine Needle campus newspaper. “We’re surrounded by violent crimes. We’re surrounded by drugs. We’re surrounded by alcohol. We’re surrounded by everything that can put us in danger.” 

Gun-related deaths across America decreased in 2023 following record numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic. But many safety experts say there is still work to do to reduce violent crime. In Robeson County, home to about 118,000 residents, authorities have investigated at least eight homicides so far in 2024.  

Gun violence on college campuses is fairly uncommon. But shooting incidents on and near campuses rose more than 150% and casualties more than doubled from 2001 to 2016, according to a report by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. Most of the 190 shootings analyzed by the commission — 64% — occurred in southern states, including 11 in North Carolina.  

At UNC-Chapel Hill, a 34-year-old doctoral student allegedly shot and killed a faculty member in August. The campus was on lockdown for more than three hours while police looked for the suspect. 

Arrests made

For some, arrests in the recent shootings at UNC Pembroke brought little comfort. The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation arrested Kendall T. Brown, 22, a week after the February shooting. Brown was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and discharging a firearm on educational property. 

Authorities arrested 20-year-old Kalon Pernell Dial on Thursday and charged him with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the March 2 shooting. In a statement, Hunt said the arrest was made with the State Bureau of Investigation and the Southeastern North Carolina Violent Crimes Task Force. 

Neither Brown nor Dial were students at UNC Pembroke. 

A scene from the vigil for Cameron Taylor. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Since returning to campus last week following spring break, some daily routines have changed. Lockamy Bass said her daughter no longer feels safe outside, especially at night. She uses delivery apps to get food and always makes sure she has others with her when she walks her dog. She knows three students who are considering transferring over safety concerns, including a former roommate who was injured in the March shooting. 

“They don’t feel safe at Pembroke,” Lockamy Bass said.

Since her freshman son returned to campus, Shay Martineau said she has started monitoring his phone location and checks in with him at least three or four times a day. She said her son knew Alford and Taylor, and losing two friends back-to-back has left him shaken. 

Her son fell in love with UNC Pembroke because its quaint and rural setting reminded him of his hometown of Lebanon, Maine. But Martineau said he’s now thinking of transferring. 

Martineau said her son has always been willing to help when there’s trouble. But the recent shootings have taught him to be wary.

“Now he’s just learned it’s not safe, and it’s not worth losing his life,” Martineau said. “Because somebody’s gonna have a gun.”

Ben Rappaport contributed reporting.

Friends of Cameron Taylor attended a memorial for him at UNC Pembroke on March 12. Photo by Ben Rappaport