Wake Forest University wants a federal judge to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the mother of Najee Ali Baker, a Winston-Salem State University student who was fatally shot while attending a party on Wake’s campus.
Baker, 21, a WSSU football player from Brooklyn, N.Y., was shot outside The Barn, an event venue at Wake Forest, at 1:01 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2018. Baker died later at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center from a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
Baker had attended a party thrown by Wake’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Winston-Salem police say Jakier Shanique Austin, 22, shot Baker while Baker and another WSSU student were walking away from The Barn. Austin has been charged with murder in Baker’s death.
Malik Patience Smith, 18, is facing two gun possession charges and another charge that he pointed a gun at someone. Austin and Smith were not students at either Wake Forest or WSSU.
The charges against the two men are pending.
Jemel Dixon, Baker’s mother and executor of his estate, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court on May 7 against Wake Forest, the university’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and Rhino Sports & Entertainment Services LLC, which provided private security for the event.
Among a number of allegations, the lawsuit accuses Wake Forest officials of failing to providing enough security measures, such as checkpoints and security guards, to prevent the fatal shooting.
In a motion to dismiss filed Wednesday, Shana Fulton, one of the university’s attorneys, strongly disputed those allegations. Fulton said that Wake Forest can’t be held liable for Baker’s death.
“According to Plaintiff’s own allegations, Austin’s violent assault on a guest on the University campus was literally unprecedented,” she writes in court papers.
The lawsuit mentions two incidents in 2014 that involved fist-fights, Fulton argues.
“There is no allegation that any crime remotely similar to the instant shooting had ever occurred on the WFU campus, let alone that the university could have foreseen this tragedy or that WFU could have done something to prevent the shooting,” she said.
The lawsuit alleges that Wake Forest made a series of missteps that made such a shooting possible.
According to the lawsuit, The Barn, which is near Piccolo and Palmer residence halls, had been the site of numerous problems requiring the intervention of university and Winston-Salem police. Because of those problems, a combined force of nine university and Winston-Salem police officers monitored events at The Barn. One of the incidents at The Barn involved six different fights at one time, the lawsuit said.
In 2014, black and other minority students alleged that university police were racist in handling events hosted by minority groups after the university police shut down a party that Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity, had thrown.
After a town hall, the university police chief commissioned an independent study by Developmental Associates, a company led by two retired veteran law-enforcement officers.
The company completed its report in August 2014 and recommended a number of things, including ensuring that university law-enforcement and administrators handle event management at the university and not students.
The report also recommended that the university provide equal security at all student events to eliminate allegation of racial bias.
The lawsuit claims that the university ignored those recommendations, opting to let students handle event management and reducing the number of university police at student events.
But Fulton denied those allegations and said that even if those allegations were true, the lawsuit fails to prove that anything the university did or did not do had anything to do with Baker’s death.
The only way, Fulton said, for the school to have reasonably prevented Baker’s shooting was to bar all non-students from the event, search every car that came onto campus and escort every one of the 450 people who attended the party back to the person’s car or dorm room.
“What happened to Najee Baker in the early morning hours of January 20, 2018 was a terrible tragedy,” Fulton wrote. “But it was not a tragedy that the University could have foreseen, let alone prevented.”
Separately, Rhino Sports & Entertainment Services LLC filed a written answer Wednesday that denied all allegations of neglect.
No trial date for the lawsuit has been set.