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Stevenson students return after being robbed in South Africa

Julia Eshmont and Tara Shriver said they sat petrified as four men on motorcycles surrounded their South African coach bus and one climbed aboard and cocked a handgun.

They were among the 30 Stevenson University students who watched as their chaperones passed wallets, cellphones, passports and valuables to the man while he waved his weapon around. The students followed suit, though some hid watches and small purses by sitting on them.

"We knew we had to give him our money," said Eshmont, a rising senior who lives in Fells Point. "We just wanted those guys out of there. We were trying so hard to get them out of there."

None of the travelers were harmed in the robbery, which happened about 1 p.m. Sunday while they toured Pretoria on the first day-trip of a summer study-abroad program.

Stevenson cut short the five-week program, and the group returned to the university's Owings Mills campus Wednesday afternoon. Eshmont, Shriver and school officials spoke at a campus news conference afterward.

During a meeting with parents at the university's student center, school officials promised to compensate the students for all losses in the robbery and refund fees from the trip, according to university spokeswoman Glenda LeGendre.

Two of the five chaperones, criminal justice chairman and assistant professor Hamin Shabazz and retired Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, said they momentarily considered trying to grab the man's weapon.

But Shabazz said the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the group weighed heavily on him in those brief moments on the bus.

"You're thinking about everybody else, trying to keep everybody calm and patient," Shabazz said. "We had to keep in mind the 35 people on the bus. He cocked the gun. It was on us to get them back" to safety.

Bealefeld and Shabazz decided not to try to confront him. "We had the obligation not to do anything stupid," Bealefeld said.

Eshmont said the chaperones' response helped the students stay composed. "I knew I had to be strong and couldn't show any emotion," she said. "I knew if I started to bawl or show fear, [the gunman] was going to freak out."

Stevenson has sent student groups to South Africa three other times with no such incidents, school officials said. Shabazz said he has visited the country 18 times since 2005.

The students, who study criminal justice, were to be placed in jobs and internships related to police, courts and corrections during the trip. University officials are scrambling to make alternate arrangements in Maryland for the students, some of whom do not live in the state, LeGendre said.

South African police and the U.S. Embassy are investigating the robbery and keeping the university updated on the case, officials said.

Bealefeld, who joined the Baltimore County university's criminal justice faculty after leading the city's Police Department, said he was frustrated because South African authorities told him such brazen robberies in broad daylight are extraordinary.

"I was mad in the seconds leading up to it, and I've been mad since," he said.

Bealefeld hoped getting the word out about the robbery would prepare others considering visiting the country.

"As people travel, they need to know what happened to us," he said.

The university is offering counseling upon request to the students and chaperones.

Shabazz said that despite the trauma of being victimized in a foreign country, the robbery provided a teachable moment for the students studying crime and the courts system.

"There is an educational take-away on many levels," Shabazz said. "Our students get to read about what we experienced. Even though it was an unfortunate situation, it brings alive the material they study."

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