TAMPA — Signs of life at the University of Tampa sprang up everywhere as landscapers trimmed bushes and parents carried plastic tubs for fresh-faced freshmen looking for their new dorms.
Despite the optimism, a sadness lingered over the campus, where classes start Monday. A fellow student recently had been killed, and early this week, the gunman was still on the loose.
Jessica Fyfe's parents trailed closely behind her carrying bags out of the Barnes & Noble University Bookstore.
"They're flipping out," the freshman from South Korea said.
Her father said he approved of UT because it seemed safer than even more urban schools like Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"Now we show up and there's a murder," Chris Fyfe said.
"On top of that, a UT student," Jessica's mother, Chong-Yon Fyfe, said.
On Aug. 19, UT student-athlete Ryan McCall, 21, and a friend walked home from the Retreat Lounge about 3 a.m. when a robber demanded money on the N Boulevard bridge and fatally shot McCall. The shooting took place off campus, a few blocks from McCall's home. Police are analyzing other area armed robberies looking for similarities. The shooter is described as a black man in his 30s, about 5 feet 10, 180 pounds, with a husky build and goatee.
"I join with the police and others that we identify this person because this person hangs like a cloud over our campus," Bob Ruday, dean of students, said. "We don't want this person to be of more harm to anyone."
The university has held about six formal counseling sessions for faculty and students emotionally affected by the slaying, while resident advisers met with students this week to give them a safety rundown.
They reminded students to walk off campus — as well as on — with at least one friend at night. They told them about the campus' LASER team, which provides golf cart rides for students after dusk.
They also told them about a new partnership with Yellow Cab that offers rechargeable debit or gift cards that students can use for rides so they don't have to worry about having cash. Parents can prepay for the cards, too.
"Every year we hit security hard and we have mandatory floor meetings when new students come to campus," Ruday said.
Some incoming freshmen and their parents — such as Edgardo Rivera, 18, and his mother, Lynn Escobar, who are from Puerto Rico — said they didn't know about the shooting until a reporter told them.
Besides counting on resident advisers and faculty to spread the news, Ruday said the student newspaper, the Minaret, highlighted the story in print and online this week.
Many students said they don't feel unsafe at UT but said that the shooting served as a reminder not to be naive about the neighborhoods surrounding the campus.
"I've always felt very comfortable here," said Paul Patterson, a 20-year-old sophomore from Indianapolis. "We don't go out alone. We typically travel in groups. No one ever goes out alone."
"I wouldn't walk where he walked," Gracie Stemmer, 19, of Oldsmar, said of McCall's route. "I'll take a cab. I never really walk around."
Marisol Rivera, 48, attends UT with her daughter, Tiffany Garcia, 27. "At 10 o'clock at night, I know not to go that way," said Rivera, alluding to the bridge and area where McCall was shot. "I stay on Kennedy (Boulevard)."
Even parents with furrowed brows said they know they can't keep their children safe all the time. All they can do is remind them to make safe choices.
"This is a beautiful school," said Colleen Caniano, of Long Island, who dropped off her freshman daughter. "No matter what college I was going to send her to, there was going to be crime."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.