/Ole Miss says it mishandled investigation into students who posed with guns in front of Emmett Till sign

Ole Miss says it mishandled investigation into students who posed with guns in front of Emmett Till sign

Nonprofit Mississippi News: When the University of Mississippi’s head condemned members of fraternities for holding guns in front of Emmett Till’s bullet-riddled monument, he justified the university’s investigation and decided not to discipline them. The statement was misleading because he claimed Ole Miss could not identify all the students involved in the complaint. The Mississippi Center for Investigative reporting and ProPublica obtained a March bias complaint. It clearly identified two of the men and their Kappa Alpha Order membership. According to the complaint, the photo shows three boys. At least two are members of KA Ole Miss. After being questioned by news agencies about the discrepancy on Monday, interim Chancellor Larry Sparks admitted that his administration had mishandled it and that he has initiated an internal review into a “breakdown of communications” that prevented university administrators from fully investigating the incident. Sparks responded to ProPublica and Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting questions by writing that “our ongoing review has updated us understanding of some key facts” in the process. He wrote that the bias incident investigation was still ongoing. “We will proceed accordingly to take all necessary referrals and assessments,” he wrote. The March complaint included a copy from a March 1 photo posted by student Ben LeClere to his private Instagram account. LeClere was pictured with two fraternity brothers standing in front of a plaque at the roadside that commemorates the spot where Till’s body was found from the Tallahatchie River. In August 1955, the 14-year-old boy of color was tortured to death. Two white men were acquitted by an all-white jury. His death was a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement. LeClere was holding a shotgun and John Lowe, a fraternity brother, was sitting beneath the bullet-pocked sign. On the opposite side of the sign, a third member of fraternity is holding an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. The complaint incorrectly identified Lowe as holding the rifle while he was actually squatting. Charles Howell Logan is a Kappa Alpha member. He was identified via Instagram and Twitter by ex-colleagues from Deerfield-Windsor School, Albany, Georgia. Logan was a top athlete at the school. Three social media accounts that appeared to be Logan’s were deleted last week. This happened at the same time that Lowe and LeClere had been deleted. The Instagram photo looks strikingly like photos that Logan shared with his former classmates. Logan appears to be the same height as the man in the photo. Logan did not respond to requests for comment. LeClere, Lowe and Lowe also did not. It is unclear whether the students actually shot the memorial or posed in front of it. After being asked by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, the Kappa Alpha chapter of Ole Miss suspended three men from the photo. Sparks said the photo was offensive in his initial statement Friday. The university had given the image to FBI for investigation and concluded that no crime had been committed. Susan Glisson was the Ole Miss’ William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation’s director for over 20 years before retiring in 2016. She called the university’s current response “unconscionable.” She asked why Ole Miss officials had not launched their own investigation while waiting for an FBI decision. She stated that the university was still able to follow long-established protocols in responding to incidents such as this, despite the possibility of an inquiry. Sparks confirmed Monday that Ole Miss officials had confirmed that the students were in good health shortly after the complaint was filed. LeClere is currently a junior majoring in managerial financial management. Lowe is currently not enrolled. Sparks stated that the Bias Incident Response Team received the complaint and referred it to the University Police Department. The FBI was contacted. Sparks said that the university’s Office of Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct and its Office for Fraternal Leadership and Learning, which typically would have played a role in reviewing such a complaint, decided not to take action until the FBI made a decision. Sparks explained Monday that the FBI’s decision was not made public to campus offices due to a “lapse of communication”. Sparks stated that the offices would continue their investigation into the photo. Sparks wrote that all staff involved in the process showed a commitment to take this matter seriously and that the university is committed ensuring that this process works as it should. Officials at Ole Miss didn’t answer questions about whether LeClere ever was contacted regarding the photo. The photo was posted to Instagram from July 23rd, when ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting began asking questions. Officials from Ole Miss also refused to answer questions about whether they had ever contacted Kappa Alpha Order representatives about the photo. Taylor Anderson, president at Ole Miss Kappa Alpha Order, stated that he first saw the photo on July 23. All three Kappa Alpha members were suspended in less than 24 hours. Anderson stated in an email that if Anderson had seen the photo back in March, Ole Miss would have received the complaint. Anderson also said that the fraternity would have taken “absolutely the same immediate action” as Anderson to suspend the three members. The photo was not discovered by all Kappa Alpha members. At least 16 of the 247 people who liked the original Instagram photo identified themselves as Kappa Alpha members. Jesse S. Lyons assistant executive director for advancement of the national Kappa Alpha Order responded to questions about this matter by saying that the fraternity would investigate the matter. He explained that the Till photo was one of a number of images included in the post and that some might have preferred another image, but didn’t look beyond it. There are 280 Kappa Alpha members in the Ole Miss chapter. In an Instagram message, one of the people who liked the photo wrote that he liked it because it was a birthday picture. “Had no clue who Emmett Till was until this all happened.” Ole Miss has struggled for decades to overcome its past since 1962, when James Meredith was admitted to the university. He was the first black student to be admitted to the school. The first black fraternity house on campus was destroyed by fire in 1988. The university rallied to raise money for its reconstruction. Ole Miss hosted its 2008 presidential debate. However, four years later, white students burned Obama campaign signs on campus and chanted, “The South will rise again.” Three Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity students placed a noose around Meredith’s neck in 2014. A Georgia flag of Georgia’s past with the Confederate battle emblem was also put on the campus by the students. Three Sigma Phi Epsilon members resigned from Ole Miss and two pleaded guilty federal criminal charges. Kappa Alpha is a notoriously controversial organization. In 2002, Kappa Alpha sponsored a Halloween party at University of Virginia. Its website recognizes Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its spiritual founder. The photo of the three posing in front of the Till sign has rekindled debates about race and racism in Mississippi. Governor Rick Scott even took the time to weigh in. Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, released a statement on Twitter: “I am deeply saddened by the choice made by the three students to pose in such a thoughtless and disrespectful way at Emmett Till historical marker.” On Saturday, Phil Bryant (a Republican) released the following statement via Twitter: “I am deeply disturbed by the choice made to pose in such an thoughtless and disrespectful manner at the Emmett Till historical marker. Mississippi has made great strides towards racial reconciliation. These despicable acts are not representative the progress we have made.” Both the Black Student Union (and the Associated Student Body) have also weighed-in, asking Ole Miss for the university’s creed to be made a requirement for students. It states that each person must respect the dignity of another. The Emmett Till Memorial Commission has removed the damaged sign and replaced it with a bulletproof one, according to Patrick Weems, Executive Director. The Emmett Till Memory Project also designed a website that allows people to visit all of the important places related to the Till story. Dave Tell, author and editor of “Remembering Emmett Till,” stated that the team plans to release the app just in time for Till’s anniversary, which is August 28. This report was contributed by Thalia Beaty of ProPublica, Benjamin Hardy, and Claire Perlman from ProPublica. Jerry Mitchell is an investigative journalist for the Mississippi Center for Investigation Reporting. This non-profit news organization seeks to hold government officials accountable and empower citizens within their communities.