On May 18, 2009, Justin Cosby, a Cambridge resident, was struck by a bullet in the chest after a drug deal gone wrong in the basement of Kirkland House.
That such an incident could happen at Harvard shocked the campus and the nation, attracting widespread media attention and inducing short-lived student panic.
But since the alleged drug rip and shooting, the student body, by all accounts, has put the incident behind them, dismissing it as an isolated event. Meanwhile, administrators have remained relatively mum on the potential security flaws exposed by the incident and their response to them, citing ongoing criminal investigations.
Three men who are unaffiliated with Harvard University and Brittany J. Smith ’09—a former Lowell House resident who was not allowed to graduate last spring—are currently facing charges related to the alleged homicide.
Despite Harvard’s silence, conversations with administrators and students indicate that the College is taking some small steps to encourage students to more closely monitor and control access to Harvard dormitories and drug use at Harvard. Still, it is unclear whether these steps came about due to the Kirkland shooting, whether Harvard has taken any major steps to prevent such an incident from reoccurring—or whether they are simply too nervous to talk about it at all.
It was a Monday morning that would end in tragedy. Prosecutors say that three New York men—Jason Aquino, Jabrai J. Copney, and Blayn “Bliz” Jiggetts—were at Harvard, ready to make some cash.
Smith, who was dating Copney at the time, gave the men her identification card, allowing them access to buildings across campus, according to Middlesex County District Attorney Gerard T. Leone, Jr. ’85.
Aquino, Copney, and Jiggetts made their way to Kirkland House’s J-entryway, where they swiped Smith’s ID, according to prosecutors. The orange light turned green, the door unlocked, and the three men entered. Somehow, Cosby gained access to the building as well.
All four men would leave Kirkland House, but only three would survive the day.
It remains unclear how Cosby, the soon-to-be-victim who has since been linked to the campus drug trade, entered Kirkland House. One possibility is that he followed a student who swiped into the Harvard dormitory, a practice often called “piggybacking.”
About two weeks after the shooting, a private investigator and his wife were accused of piggybacking into a Harvard dormitory to investigate the incident. The investigator was charged with trespassing after a student reported them to a police officer.
Without directly referencing the Kirkland incident, College administrators say they are working to discourage piggybacking by encouraging students to be more vigilant about who they let into Harvard buildings.
“None of us want to slam the door in someone’s face, but in some sense, you have to when you’re in an urban environment like this,” says John “Jay” L. Ellison, associate dean of the College, who is involved with addressing security concerns at many levels of the University.
Often, the burden of securing Harvard premises falls on students, according to Ellison.
“It is impossible to control full access to [buildings] except through the swipe cards,” he says.
But one of the obstacles to preventing piggybacking is that it would go against what administrators describe as Harvard’s culture of inclusivity.
Because undergraduates have become accustomed to holding the door for others, it seems rude not to allow another student access, according to Joshua G. McIntosh, associate dean of the College for student life.
McIntosh, who chairs the Harvard College Safety Committee, says the situation would be improved “if the cultural norm was we just didn’t let people come in behind us.”
College administrators say they are developing a campaign to encourage students to be mindful of who they are letting into Harvard buildings, but they will not say if the shooting is specifically motivating that initiative.
“I am not going to point to any one thing that motivated that campaign,” says Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds.
The Safety Committee is also re-evaluating how it communicates Harvard’s policies to students, according to McIntosh, but administrators say the re-evaluation is unrelated to the Kirkland shooting.
“I will be honest with you. This issue was independent of and not sparked by the Kirkland incident,” McIntosh says. “What motivated this more strategic direction is that we had 12 people in a room who thought it was an important thing to do.”
While they say that Harvard regularly re-evaluates its safety policies, administrators were unwilling to discuss what, if any, lessons were learned from the alleged murder inside Kirkland House due to the ongoing investigations.
“It’s an urban environment, and we hope that we can manage the unsafe things that might happen in our environment and we do that every single day,” says Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson. “That is something we are constantly engaged in.”
‘ASKING FOR TROUBLE’
After swiping into the Kirkland J-entryway, Aquino, Copney, and Jiggetts made their way into the basement of the annex to meet with Cosby, according to prosecutors.
Cosby, who had previously been arrested on drug charges, is believed to have been a supplier of marijuana on campus. One student last year said a man who called himself “Justin” sold marijuana to him and other Harvard students. Text messages this student received from Justin advertised Jack Herer and Kali Mist, two popular marijuana strains. Further investigation showed that the text messages were sent from a phone tied to Cosby’s mother.
That day, Cosby seemed ready for a drug transaction—but, according to the district attorney’s office, Aquino, Copney, and Jiggetts had no intention to pay.
In 2005, The Crimson reported that marijuana use at Harvard is “less likely to get [a student] in trouble than breaking a window.”
Two potential questions raised by the shooting are whether Harvard properly addressed drug use on campus before the incident and whether the attitude toward illegal drug use within the College has changed.
It is hardly a surprise that marijuana is consumed in a state that decriminalized possession of small quantities of the substance last year—it certainly isn’t to Steven G. Catalano, spokesman for the Harvard University Police Department.
“Harvard is no different than [any] other school or university with regards to the presence of drugs and alcohol on campus,” he writes in an e-mail. “We have always taken a hard line stance to drug distribution on campus.”
Administrators are unwilling to discuss the Kirkland incident, though they remain adamant that Harvard consistently enforces its policies prohibiting drug use.
Last week, Nelson defended the College’s policies regarding marijuana, including the degree to which they have been enforced by tutors.
“We have a perfectly good protocol, and we’ve consistently implemented the protocol and will continue to do that,” she says.
McIntosh, who edits the crisis handbook for House staff, says “the protocol didn’t change” since the Kirkland incident.
While HUPD may take “a hard line stance” against drug distribution, the individuals who oftentimes are the first to respond to drug use on campus—the resident tutors who populate every entryway of every residential House at the College—tell a different story.
Before the shooting, tutors sometimes turned a blind eye towards infractions seen as minor, but they have since been instructed to more strictly enforce Harvard’s drug policies.
“It’s sort of like a tree falls in the forest and if you don’t see it, it’s not happening,” Luciana Herman, a resident tutor in Quincy House, says about the attitude toward drug enforcement prior to the shooting. “There was a passive disinterest.”
But since the incident, tutors say the administration has instructed them to be more vigilant, in line with what Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 calls “a heightened understanding that where there’s any kind of drug activity that the connection to any criminal behavior is not far removed.”
“I think that after the event in Kirkland, we were all told that the University is concerned about this and that we should really remind students that engaging in drugs can be a very dangerous thing,” says an Adams House resident tutor, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
After The Crimson began contacting House staff for this article, Hammonds instructed College staff not to comment on “issues arising out of the Kirkland incident,” according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Jeff Neal. House Masters, resident deans, and most tutors contacted for this article after last Wednesday morning declined to answer questions related to campus security policy, instead referring comment to Neal and Nelson.
While tutors may have been instructed to more strictly enforce drug policy in light of the shooting, it remains unclear what effect that has had. There is some evidence to suggest that drug use may have declined at least briefly after the shooting took place, but there are few signs that the campus drug scene has been significantly affected by last year’s incident.
“Right after it happened, no one was selling drugs on campus,” says one Harvard undergraduate who uses marijuana and asked to remain anonymous because he uses the substance. “Coming back in the fall, [buying drugs] was definitely harder than it was before.”
While the most recent statistical data made available by HUPD is from 2008, anecdotal evidence does not suggest that there has been a tangible change in drug use over the past year.
A survey of the class of 2010 conducted by The Crimson found that 34 percent of seniors self-reported using marijuana at least a few times a year or more.
Elizabeth Tang ’11 says that on April 20—a day when cannabis users often gather to smoke marijuana—she saw “a ton of people” in an entryway smoking.
Another individual, who is not enrolled at Harvard but says he sells to undergraduates, says he has always avoided selling inside of Harvard dormitories.
“I don’t go near the dorms. I don’t go near any of the Houses,” he says. “I don’t hang around with kids at the College or the University.”
“That’s just asking for trouble,” he adds.
A MUTED RESPONSE
Aquino, Copney, and Jiggetts were about to engage in what prosecutors called a “drug rip.” Jiggetts, the district attorney’s office says, pulled out a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and handed it to Copney. Copney put his finger on the trigger.
At 4:48 p.m., HUPD received word of shots fired in Kirkland House, according to prosecutors. Residents in J-entryway said they heard three sounds akin to gunshots.
Cosby, with a bullet in his abdomen, stumbled out of Kirkland, bleeding as he made his way toward Mt. Auburn St.
E-mail lists were aflame. At about 5:45 p.m., roughly one hour after the first reports of the shooting, Harvard affiliates received a truncated text message via “Message Me,” the University’s emergency notification system. Due to the character limit of the system, the message cut off the second sentence at “Police ask people to remain indoors and avoi—” and did not reach two percent of the system’s 14,000 subscribers.
When asked about what improvements to security were made in response to the Kirkland incident, University spokesman Kevin Galvin wrote in an e-mail, “We don’t discuss the details of security measures.”
Public relations specialists and legal experts are divided on Harvard’s tight-lipped stance on discussing any subject related to the Kirkland incident.
Clarke L. Caywood, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in crisis communications, sharply criticizes Harvard’s unwillingness to answer questions regarding any possible security reforms following the Kirkland incident.
“That’s unacceptable in a day of transparency, openness, and a need for confidence in the institution,” he says.
What various spokespeople, administrators, and experts have said paints a picture of a University not just hesitant to comment on a criminal case involving bullets fired within the serenity of an undergraduate House, but cautious to avoid using language that could bring about a civil law suit.
Harry King, a crisis communications specialist based out of Boston, says that the goal after such an incident is to reassure the public that steps are being taken.
These steps, though, may potentially identify past problems that could have contributed to the shooting, enticing victims—in this case, Cosby’s family—to sue Harvard, according to criminal defense attorney Stephen B. Hrones ’64.
Hammonds cites legal reasons when discussing the communication clampdown on House staff and limiting her own comments regarding any possible reforms due to the Kirkland shooting. While Hrones says he understands the rationale, he says assuring student safety should continue to be Harvard’s top priority.
In an interview, Hammonds—though she did not name any tangible steps taken since the shooting—affirmed that Harvard is a safe place for students to attend.
To criminal defense attorney and Harvard Law School graduate Keith S. Halpern, there is no “legitimate reason” he can think of when rationalizing Harvard’s silence, as he says he cannot imagine an alleged drug dealer’s family would sue the University.
Still, Harvard’s current strategy of limiting communication is not necessarily an improper one given current legal proceedings, according to other experts.
“You should probably be erring on the side of caution until the litigation and the prosecution is complete,” says Peter Morrissey, an associate professor of communication at Boston University.
The University must find the right balance between protecting itself from litigation and assuring the community that it has adequately responded to the incident and its security implications, according to King.
But for some students, Harvard is failing to achieve a proper balance.
“I haven’t really seen anything from the administration on what measures they are taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” says Anne C. Taylor ’11. “I’d say it affected my perception of how safe the campus is.”
Since Harvard officials are not speaking publicly about the incident, it is difficult to determine exactly what internal evaluations have taken place and what they have concluded about the security implications of the shooting.
“The HUPD feels the Kirkland House incident was an isolated incident,” writes Catalano, the HUPD spokesman.
Ellison, who sits on several emergency response committees throughout the University, would only discuss the University’s internal response to the shooting in general terms.
“To my knowledge, I don’t know that there have been any secret committees or staff positions created to deal with any one incident,” he says.
But Ellison says Harvard considers the implications of any emergency.
“We always have an after-action review, talk about what worked, what didn’t work,” he says. “That’s how you prepare for the next big thing.”
—Melody Y. Hu and Danielle J. Kolin contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Naveen N. Srivatsa can be reached at email@example.com.