Officials at Baptist-affiliated William Carey College aren't commenting about allegations by four former students expelled for using a college-owned generator after Hurricane Katrina claiming they were singled out for punishment because they are black.
According to media reports, seniors Jeremy Irby and Dante Hardy and juniors Marvin Flemmons and Jeremiah Blackwell--all African-Americans and current or former players on the college basketball team--were expelled Aug. 31 for violating the school's code of conduct.
Their troubles began Aug. 29, when Hurricane Katrina knocked out electricity on the campus in Hattiesburg, Miss. School officials urged students to leave before the storm, and most did, but some say they were stranded because roads were blocked, gasoline wasn't available or they lived out of state.
Someone removed a portable generator from a maintenance shed, which the students claim was ripped open by high winds. They brought it to the lobby of a men's dorm, where students used it to charge cell phones so they could stay in touch with their families.
The following day, according to a report of the incident by the Associated Press, an administrator told students she wanted the generator returned to the shed. Students were transferred to the college gymnasium until power was restored, and the generator was returned to the storage facility.
After returning to the dorm, Irby, Hardy and Blackwell say there summoned by letters to a meeting the dorm lobby the next day, when they were told they were expelled. They said they were to be off campus within two hours, escorted by a Hattiesburg police officer and armed military officer.
The three called Flemmons, who lived off campus, to come get them. He received his letter of expulsion when he arrived.
The students say they were not given an official reason for their expulsion until Irby and Blackwell tried to get their basketball scholarships reinstated. Irby and Blackwell were members of the current team. Hardy and Flemmons are former players who quit the team during the fall of 2003. Flemmons, who last played in 2002-2003, was attempting to rejoin the team this year as a walk-on.
Hardy, 31, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and one-time justice of the Student Government Association, says the four were told they were being expelled for using the generator.
The college's code of conduct says a student can be expelled for property violations, including "the intentional or unintentional taking, damaging or destroying of property belonging to the college, members of the college community or visitors."
The four admit to using the generator but say they had no part in removing it from the shed. They claim they are being treated unfairly because they are black, because other white students who also benefited from its use weren't punished. They are considering legal action.
The students allege they weren't allowed to defend themselves. The student handbook allows students who are suspended or dismissed to appeal within 48 hours but also gives the president authority to intercede in matters of discipline to act in ways he deems in the "best interest of the college." The four students said their letters contained the words "no appeals."
"I definitely believe it was about race, because there were white people on campus with us that were benefiting from use of the generator," Hardy told the AP.
Officials at the predominantly white college affiliated with the Mississippi Baptist Convention declined to comment, calling it a "private student matter" and citing instructions by legal counsel. They insisted, however, that the expulsions weren't motivated by race.
"I would deny that," William Carey President Larry Kennedy told the Hattiesburg American. "We treat all students the same."
Ranked as one of "America's Best Colleges" by U.S. News & World Report, William Carey, named after a pioneer Baptist missionary to India, enrolls about 1,600 undergraduate students. About 25 percent are black.
The school developed a good reputation for race relations in 1965, when it became the first private college in Mississippi to comply with the Civil Right Compliance Pledge and the first to admit African-American students.
Clarence Magee, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, was quoted by a Web site covering higher education as saying his group was concerned about reports coming out of William Carey but had been unable to obtain much information.
Magee said in recent years the school wasn't viewed as either particularly good or bad for black students, but he did approach the college about a year ago after receiving reports from a black female student claiming discrimination by an instructor and fellow students.
One black student interviewed by InsideHigherEd.com said all four students who were removed were well-liked but asked that her name not be used, because black students are afraid to speak out for fear that they, too, might be expelled. "This all happened so fast," she said. "It leaves you wondering if white students have more privileges."
William Carey is one of several Gulf Coast colleges that suffered damage and/or lost income due to Hurricane Katrina. The college reported damages of $12.8 million.
Hardy and Flemmons are now enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi, while Blackwell and Irby are not currently enrolled in college.
"It is demeaning, Irby, who has a job at a gas station, told the AP. "You have one life and you are so accustomed to it."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.