Whenever Old Dominion University is mentioned, the conversation inevitably turns to these controversial topics.
John Cann wants to make the conversation productive.
Cann is not your average graduate student. The 43 year-old is the founder and CEO of Twisted Ink LTD, a design company that has been based in Norfolk for 14 years. He is the publisher of multiple local publications, including Twisted Ink Magazine and MicroCulture magazine. He is also a member of Phi Kappa Phi and Sigma Tau, both prestigious honor societies. He boasts a 4.0 GPA throughout his academic career.
He was also, until recently, a resident of Norfolk, living on 49th street. He lived there for two years while attending ODU, but the local crime situation forced him to get rid of his house and move to Portsmouth. “I never thought I would want to live in Portsmouth, but I actually feel safer there,” he said.
Immediately after the murder of Paul Johnson in February, Cann contacted President Broderick about organizing a town hall meeting where the student body, off campus residents, ODU administrators and the ODU Police Department could begin a dialog to address the safety concerns surrounding ODU.
“It’s not about pointing fingers,” Cann said. “It’s about confronting the problem.”
Cann is no stranger to organizing public events. For the past five years, he has co-produced the immensely successful Hampton Roads Tattoo Festival in Hampton. In his own words, his goal was to “contribute to helping create a safe learning environment.”
But the responses he got from campus administrators have been less than productive. First, the president’s office referred him to Don Stansberry, the assistant vice president of student engagement. Stansberry informed Cann that student forums on the subject were in the planning stages and that Alex Asta, the chair of the SGA safety committee, would be in contact with him in order to work with him on these events. This was on Feb. 25.
After more than two weeks with no contact, Cann again attempted to engage campus administrators. This time, he was referred to Mike Debowes, the director of student conduct and academic integrity and assistant to the vice president for off-campus initiatives. This time, he was assured that an off-campus advisory meeting was being planned in order to address safety and “other issues.” Again, he was promised an invitation to participate, and again, he responded enthusiastically. This was on March 14.
After a couple more weeks without any contact, Cann became frustrated. He sent an email inquiring about the status of the meetings. He never received a reply.
Following the recent incident at the District, Cann’s patience reached its limits. He sent an email to administrators asking “How many people have to get raped and murdered before this meeting happens?”
There was no response.
Cann is not the sort of man to allow his voice to be stifled. He could have taken his story to one of his local media contacts. He mentioned a reporter he spoke to at the vigil at the scene of Paul Johnson’s murder. The reporter has been trying to engage the campus in a dialogue about crime and safety since the murder of Christopher Cummings in 2011. Cann says the reporter told an all-too-familiar story of being shuffled around the administration, receiving vague platitudes and no real responses.
Instead, Cann chose to bring his story to the Mace and Crown. He hopes to motivate students to start asking questions, to engage administrators about their safety, and to demand a response. “This belongs here [at ODU],” Cann said. “It’s not about creating a public crisis. It’s about student recognition, about students, administrators and the ODU Police addressing the problem together.”
Cann does not have a favorable view of the ODU Police Department.
“Their relationship with the students is too distant,” he said. “They have a big city mentality, which is not healthy for a university police department. They brag about solving a higher percentage of crimes than the Norfolk Police Department. That doesn’t impress me. The Norfolk Police Department points to the number of crimes they’ve prevented. Preventative measures impress me.”
Cann believes that the ODU Police Department needs a better relationship with the student body.
“There should be more information sharing, more open access. It would have a positive effect in preventing crime,” he said, expressing beliefs shared by other students.
“I wanted to put this together in a productive way, with shared dialog, rather than sweeping it under the carpet.” Instead, he has been shuffled around the administration, appeased with empty promises, stifled and ignored.
“I get the impression that something else is going on,” he said. The few responses he received in his email correspondence implied that other considerations were being taken into account. He wants to know exactly what the priorities of the administration are; what is more important to them than student safety?
He points to the recent rape at the District. He wants to know why students weren’t informed sooner.
“I didn’t get a safety warning. A girl I know who lives at the District didn’t get a warning. It was handled poorly,” he said.
His opinion echoes that of numerous other students, most of who expressed shock, frustration and outrage at finding out about the incident via Facebook.
Cann is trying to force the administration into a response. Towards this end, he is preparing to launch an anti-crime campaign on campus designed to get students thinking about safety. It involves printed media with provocative messages strategically placed in high traffic areas around ODU. He wants to remind the university that it has an “ethical responsibility to protect students on campus.”
He hopes maybe this time, the powers-that-be will actually respond.
By: David Thornton