When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf coast, many college students took extraordinary steps to get to safety or let their families know they were OK.
A student at William Carey College, in Hattiesburg, Miss., reportedly took a small campus generator out of a storage shed that was damaged by the storms and brought it to a dormitory, where students used it to charge cell phones to try to communicate with their loved ones. It is not clear who took the generator, but four black students say that they were expelled -- without the opportunity to defend themselves -- because of the incident.
The students say that while they were among those in the dormitory who benefited from the generator, they are being treated unfairly because they are black, and that white students who used the generator are not being punished.
College officials refuse to discuss the specifics of the case, but confirm that four students were expelled and say that race had nothing to do with what happened.
Dante Hardy, who was a senior before being kicked out, said in an interview that those who used the generator weren't trying to steal from the college, but just to survive in a difficult situation. Most William Carey students left the campus before Katrina arrived, but those who were still there had to look out for themselves, he said.
Hardy said that he believes race is a factor in how the students were treated because white students and employees who used the generator were not punished. Just before the college resumed operations after Katrina, he said, the four students were told to attend a meeting with campus officials where "we were given written notice that this decision was to be final, that there was not to be any appeal, and that we were not allowed to come back to campus even as visitors."
When the students asked about their due process rights, he said they were told that "since they are a private institution, they can remove students as they see fit." But Hardy said that the college violated its own rules about giving students a hearing at which they can defend themselves.
Marvin Flemmons, who was a junior before being expelled, said that he didn't even use the generator. "We were treated very unfairly and I never had the opportunity to speak up for myself," he said. "No one was trying to steal the generator. People were just trying to get in touch with their families."
Flemmons noted that the four students who were expelled were not only black, but all were current or former members of the basketball team.
Barbara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the college, said that William Carey officials couldn't discuss the case because it is "a private student matter."
She added: "It had nothing to do with race in any way. This was about actions and behavior."
Asked if students could be expelled without a hearing, she said, "whatever is said in the handbook is followed and in some cases the president has precedence over that because of the behavior in question."
A black sophomore at the college said that many students there are upset about the expulsions and that the students who were removed were well liked. The student asked that her name not be used and said that black students are afraid to speak out for fear that they will be kicked out.
"This all happened so fast," she said. "It leaves you wondering if white students have more privileges."
Clarence E. Magee, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said that his group was concerned about the reports coming out of William Carey, but that he had been unable to gather much information about the case.
He said that 10 months ago, he approached the college after receiving complaints from a black female student about what she said was discriminatory treatment by an instructor and fellow students. Magee said that the college refused to discuss the case, citing student privacy rights, and the student transferred to another college.
During the 1960s, he said, William Carey College had a good reputation among black leaders because it "participated in breaking down racial barriers in the area." More recently, he said, the college wasn't viewed as being particularly good or bad for black students.
Magee said he was most bothered by the idea that the black students may have been expelled without being able to defend themselves. "The college did not allow them any rebuttal at all, based on the reports I've received, and that's disturbing."