At Florida Memorial University, surviving assaults is part of the curriculum
A turtle suns itself on a rock along the edge of a dark and placid comma-shaped lagoon that marks the center of campus. Casually dressed students carrying schoolbooks saunter across manicured lawns or slouch at patio tables outside the modest student activity center. A pleasant breeze rattles leaf-stocked branches on the sort of Tuesday afternoon that makes a student grateful to spend November in Miami Gardens.
Florida Memorial University's young director of student affairs, Joyce Forchion, leads a ripped-from-a-pamphlet campus tour. She heralds the brand-new glass-walled performing arts center and the aviation building, topped with a sawed-off control tower, which add touches of modernity to the university's low-slung, stuck-in-the-'60s architectural motif. Waves and smiles greet Forchion everywhere. She credits her casual clothes. "When I'm not suited up," she says, "the students think I'm one of them."
But a less official tour given the same evening underscores that this 1,800-student Ivy League-on-a-budget is not all harmony in education. A student named Robert — who doesn't want his full name used for fear of backlash from the faculty — tools his Toyota Camry in semicircles around campus and points out past crime scenes. "That's where the kid was thrown into the lagoon," he says nonchalantly as he drives. "The student center's where the riot went down... There was a shooting at that bookstore."
This is not Robert's vivid imagination at work. An encyclopedia-thick stack of police reports concerning incidents on campus reveals that in recent years, a wave of violence and theft has hit Florida Memorial University, one of the nation's most historically black institutions of higher learning.
The crimes committed here are frequent — about a hundred a year, almost four times the rate of a neighboring university — and serious: Since 2007, there have been shootings, carjackings, dozens of robberies, assaults, home invasions, and burglaries. Two days in November 2008 saw a violent mob descend on a family's vehicle and leave a 17-year-old boy wounded by gunshot one night, and four masked gunmen storm a dorm room during a laptop heist the next. Pistol-wielding carjackers have carved a niche out of preying on FMU students driving parent-bought vehicles. One coed had her teeth stomped out by an intruder from Opa-locka. This is not the stuff of Animal House.
As Ronald Rodman, an attorney representing the aforementioned mob-attacked family, puts it: "They've allowed the campus to be overrun by an environment of lawlessness and anarchy."
Only a few students agreed to speak on the record about their fear of violence on and around campus. "It will do [us] no good to badmouth," one student said of the institution that will print their diplomas. And even as their alma mater has struggled to pay its bills and was rocked in 2002 by the exposure of a grade-fixing scheme that implicated more than 100 students, it's not all scandal at FMU. The school is among the nation's leaders in producing African-American teachers and in 2008 graduated the youngest and the first black pilot to fly solo around the world.
Despite at least two recent lawsuits stemming from violence on campus, FMU administrators kept its safety problems from the public eye until this past October. That's when a video revealed the school's students have not only criminals to fear, but also the security guards charged with protecting the campus.
Film 101: Capturing the Image
"Is security beating up somebody?" one female student amid an agitated crowd demands as a nervous-looking guard, blue-uniformed and with sunglasses perched on the bill of his cap, stands sentry in front of a marker-scrawled bathroom door. Then a guard inside opens the door just a sliver, allowing a student-held camera to capture an obstructed glimpse of the tableau of violence inside: a nightstick suspended in the air, a wildly thrown fist, and then a flurry of motion as the door is wedged shut.
FMU junior Jeffrey Y. Martin filmed the mayhem just after 8 p.m. Monday, October 19. He pulled out his camera phone after he watched four security guards barricade themselves in the student activity center bathroom with 19-year-old junior Emory Mitchell, he says, and caught glimpses of them "banging him against the wall" and "applying a lot of pressure to his neck" using a nightstick. Unfortunately for the guards, the women's basketball team was putting on a talent show in the same building, and this real-life drama drew nearly the entire audience to the bathroom entrance.
The most remarkable segment of the video comes when a male student, at the urging of the crowd, kicks the door in, sending an officer scurrying to put the kid in a headlock. That's when a doughy guard with a slightly shell-shocked expression — he was later identified as 27-year-old Ronnie Finley — pulls his gun while muttering, "Back up!" He holds the firearm sideways, as if he's seen too many gangster flicks, and waves it at the crowd of unarmed students — who laugh at him. Speculates student Nyteria Smith, who was in the crowd: "I just think he forgot where he was."
Eventually, the film shows a handcuffed and disheveled Mitchell, a solidly built kid with a handsome, dog-like face and designs shaved into his hair, being led from the bathroom. He jaws at his escort of six guards. "All y'all should get arrested!" a male voice from the crowd yells at the officers. "All y'all going down!"
Charged with felony battery, Mitchell would spend more than a week in jail before his frat brothers scraped together $2,500 to bail him out.
What led to Emory Mitchell ending up in a bathroom with several security guards, and what exactly happened once he was there, depends on whom you ask.
According to the account the security guards, subcontracted from national security provider Allied Barton, gave police, 22-year-old officer Harry Monestime caught Mitchell tossing a blunt into the lagoon at the center of campus. Mitchell began shoving, and backup was needed to restrain the irate and violent student after he fled into the bathroom. The police report made no mention of the guards wielding nightsticks or Finley pulling a gun.
It's impossible to argue with the video — which was posted on New Times' Riptide 2.0 blog and then aired on several local news shows the next evening — but that doesn't mean FMU's administration didn't give it the old college try. The school responded to reporters' inquiries by releasing a signature-less statement that pointedly referred to the video as "amateur [and] edited." They reported that Mitchell had been suspended indefinitely.
"The security officers involved in the incident attempted to restrain the male student, who responded by assaulting the security officers," the statement continued.
Not until the next day did the school, perhaps owing to pressure from students, announce it had replaced the gun-drawing Finley.
In hindsight, the administration's instant condemnation of Mitchell was a foolhardy — and perhaps libelous — stance. On November 18, a month after the near-riot, prosecutors dropped the criminal charge against Mitchell after guards failed to appear in court.
In an interview three weeks after the melee, FMU's interim president, Sandra T. Thompson, strains for neutrality. She tells New Times that neither Mitchell's suspension nor Finley's replacement was a presumption of guilt. "Emory was charged with a crime, so it's our policy that he be immediately suspended," she says. "We just felt that given the sentiment on campus, it would be best to replace that guard."
Now Mitchell, who is being represented pro bono by the late Johnnie Cochran's law firm, has gone on the offensive. He's angling for a "public retraction" from the school and his reinstatement as a student, and to have abuse and reckless endangerment charges levied against the guards. Though his lawyer, Joseph Vredevelt, says he is pursuing civil action against the school and security company, Mitchell tells New Times he is not looking for a payday: "This isn't about money."
His Facebook status updates express a different sentiment. He spells out his terms exactly, demanding $1 million "times how many times I got hit with that nightstick" — which, according to him, is three. "Flo Mo [Florida Memorial] better go ahead and work that payment plan out now!"
HIST 203: Roots of an Institution
In 1879, the Black Baptists of Florida, a ballsy missionary contingent that believed black education was the only route to eventual integration in America, founded the Florida Baptist Institute in Live Oak, Florida — a railroad-stop-with-a-big-tree just south of the Georgia border. This was KKK country, and lynchings were commonplace. The institute dispensed with white professors, whom violent segregationists had labeled "carpetbaggers," after one was threatened at gunpoint and two black students were tied up and shot to death.
In those harrowing early days, the institution that would become Florida Memorial University developed what remains its specialty: the education of educators. Explains Paul George, historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida: "At that time, segregation actually created a niche industry for black teachers."
In 1941, the Baptist Institute moved to a former slave plantation in St. Augustine, where it merged with Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, the proud black institution where "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" — also known as the Black National Anthem — had been penned. The new school would become Florida Memorial College (not accredited as a university until 2006) and include in its faculty famed novelist Zora Neale Hurston.
In 1968, Florida Memorial relocated to its current 56-acre campus in what was then unincorporated Northwest Dade County in order to tap into urban Miami's black population.
Johnny Duncombe, now a retired Broward County Public Schools principal, was in the first South Florida class that graduated in 1972. He recalls the scrappy college scrambling on a shoestring budget, with students living in trailer-like "habitats" and TV dinner-style meals being trucked in, warmed on the spot, and devoured in classrooms.
Although the former principal is eager to attest that Florida Memorial made him what he is today as an educator, he recalls a whiff of scandal chasing its administration. "When I was in school there, I heard folks accusing the financial aid officer of stealing funds," he says. "Controllers, directors, and financial officers were always coming and going — here one year and gone the next."
Dusty court records prove the newly minted Miami institution's financial and administration woes were more than rumor. From 1973 to 1983, Florida Memorial was named as a defendant in a whopping 101 civil suits, 29 of them for allegedly not paying bills. The college was sued by Xerox; textbook suppliers McGraw-Edison, Penguin Books, and Merrill Publishing; a business providing security dogs; and even a trash company. In all, Florida Memorial has been sued for indebtedness 66 times since 1973.
Asked what was at the root of the school's troubles, Duncombe literally spells it out: "C-R-O-O-K-S," he intones with a chuckle. "But I think you always get what you pay for." His freshman year, he says, tuition was only $1,600, almost half of what Florida International University was charging. (FMU still offers a bargain-basement rate for a private education — $12,254 per year — and 96 percent of its students receive financial aid.)
As Florida Memorial settled in, its surroundings, which would later become Miami Gardens, transformed from rural rabbit-hunting territory to a pleasant burb to today's barred-window environs. Longtime residents blame Section 8 housing development for importing poverty and crime from places such as Overtown and Liberty City, a controversial stance that Mayor Shirley Gibson echoed in 2007 when she banned further low-income housing in Miami Gardens.
A national study released this past November shows Miami Gardens is the second most dangerous city in Florida, behind only Orlando. And a recent Miami Herald study casts Florida Memorial's 33054 zip code, which also includes parts of Opa-locka, as the most dangerous in the county for teenagers. Nearby Carol City Senior High School has grappled with a Fallujah-like body count, losing at least six students from one recent graduating class to murder.
In 2002, Florida Memorial was rocked by the revelation of a grade-fixing scheme that implicated a large fraction of its student population. Two registrar employees and three students with access to digital transcripts were charged with racketeering after it was discovered they had improved the grades of 122 students in return for cash. Three years later, the scandal continued to haunt the institution when it was revealed that at least four of those tainted students had gone on to teach in Miami-Dade public schools.
As in those early days, instability still reigns in FMU's front office. In August 2009, the school's president, Karl S. Wright, was abruptly removed from the position after two years. No explanation has been given for Wright's ouster, and the former president did not return a message left at his Weston home. Interim President Thompson says she has "no idea" when a permanent president might be appointed.
Today, the school has shrunk. It now has a little more than 1,800 students, down from 2,300 when the grade-fixing scandal took place. Only 38 percent of students graduate within six years, 15 percent less than the national average. And the university's admission requirements — a 2.4 minimum high school GPA is "flexible" — have given it a lax reputation that its top administrators are well aware of. Says Thompson: "We do look at nontraditional students. But this idea that we just let anybody in who applies is not true."
Despite the turmoil, there have been bright spots. FMU proudly touts its aeronautics/aviation/aerospace science and technology program, which boasts its most prestigious modern alum: Barrington Irving, who in 2007, as a senior at the school, became the youngest and the first black pilot to fly solo around the world. "It's a shame what has transpired at Florida Memorial," Irving says about the Emory Mitchell incident, insisting, "When I was on campus, I never had one problem with crime."
Irving, however, "wasn't your average college student," he says. He spent less than two full semesters in Miami Gardens. For many students who have studied full-time at FMU, campus life has been far from idyllic.
STAT 312: Crime Statistics
Theodus Theon Times isn't the type of student you'd expect to sneak a gun into school. The reedy 24-year-old from Deerfield Beach packs only 170 pounds on his six-foot-one-inch frame. He always neatly tucks in his collared shirts and gets his hair trimmed with a near-obsessive frequency. Admits his mother, Thais: "When you see him, the first thing you think is that he looks like a nerd."
Theodus Times wants to be an embalmer. So in 2006, after receiving an associate's degree in funeral science from FIU, he enrolled at Florida Memorial. He was working toward earning a funeral director and embalmer's license, which in the state of Florida requires a specialized bachelor's degree.
But Times — who did not return messages requesting interviews left with his mother and on his cell phone — ran into trouble on campus. He was at a party when some "gangbangers" picked a fight with him and flashed waistbanded handguns, threatening his life, Mom says. They weren't students: "They were just friends with some people who actually went to Florida Memorial, and security always let them come onto campus."
His personal history did not allow him to take the threats lightly. When Times was 6, his father, Theodus Sr., was killed by a gunshot to the back of the head while drinking at a dive bar in Fort Lauderdale. The elder Theodus, who had cocaine possession and resisting arrest on his record, "liked to hang out in the wrong places with the wrong people," his widower says without going into more detail. "He had a disagreement with somebody who wanted him dead, and that was it. I think that had a lot to do with Theodus [Jr.'s] doing what he did. He thought, I'm not going out like that."
From a closet in his home, the kid unearthed his dad's dusty .22-caliber Savage Stevens — a rifle commonly used for hunting small birds.
Just after 1 a.m. September 12, 2008, a security guard heard two gunshots ring out from a parking lot in the southeast corner of campus. From a distance, the guard watched Times stash the rifle under a car.
Times readily admitted to the guard that he "brought the gun to school because he was recently threatened," according to a police report, but he denied firing any shots, and cops never found a witness or a victim. The aspiring embalmer was charged with possession of a weapon on school property. But with his clean criminal record, he was offered a deferred prosecution agreement, and by staying out of trouble for the next year, he would not be prosecuted.
Times was allowed to return to Florida Memorial, where he is currently enrolled. School administrators did not respond to an inquiry about whether they disciplined the vigilante student.
On your average small liberal-arts college campus, a student bringing a hunting rifle to school to wage war on gangbangers might be considered something of an event. But it's nothing extraordinary at FMU.
Since the Miami Gardens Police Department was incorporated in December 2007, its officers have filed 196 police reports for crimes committed on FMU's campus — almost four times the number reported (56) at its close neighbor to the east, St. Thomas University.
None of the reports provided by MGPD concerns drug crimes, infractions that are usually handled by administrative discipline. And for privacy reasons, the police did not provide reports that were sexual in nature.
In 22 months, there were four reported shootings, including Theodus Times's alleged warning shots and two other weapons violations. There were two armed carjackings and three reports of cars stolen without violence. There were 28 reported assaults, batteries, and fights.
During that same period, there was a rash of thefts, including 28 burglaries at dorms and school businesses and at least one home invasion and several forced entries. At least four groups of students filed reports that their dorm rooms had been pried open with crowbars and their computers and other valuables pilfered.
In total since 1995, including records provided by the Miami-Dade Police Department, there have been 860 campus crimes reported, including 214 assaults, batteries, and intimidations; 110 burglaries; and 38 cars stolen.
"It gets wild out here; you gotta be able to hold your own," explains Jake, who was charged with battery this fall and asks that his real name not be used. Cops said he and another student began brawling over an unreturned greeting. Charges against both fighters were eventually dropped, and Jake says neither was suspended from school. "You're not going to find most of the fights on no police reports."
If the bulk of the fights seem to occur between students, it's clear that at least in some cases, criminals from outside the school are preying on students. Around 4 a.m. September 24, 2008, 24-year-old Troy Clayton and his student girlfriend, 20-year-old Diamone Dunnam, were parked in front of the school in his red Chevy Monte Carlo when a silver four-door car squealed to a stop in front of them. Two young masked gunmen jumped out. "You know what this is!" one demanded. "Get out and lay down!"
They snatched Clayton's wallet, his girlfriend's purse, and even the permitted Ruger .45 he kept stashed under the driver's seat. Then one stick-up kid sped off in Clayton's Monte Carlo while the other followed in the silver car. "We both were shocked, like, This is not real," Clayton remembers. "This is not happening in front of the school."
Three security guards sitting at a front-entrance security checkpoint "less than 200 feet away," according to Clayton, didn't learn of the carjacking until the robbed couple informed them of it. "They told me I was the fourth victim of carjackings that had happened in the same way," he recalls. Although some had occurred a couple of blocks from campus, all involved FMU students. Clayton's robbers were never caught, but cops recovered the abandoned Monte Carlo and the handgun.
"It's hard to say for sure how many of these crimes are perpetrated by students and how much is outsiders coming in," says one Miami Gardens detective who also grew up in the town. "It's probably students stealing from each other, because that's just what people do. But most of the violent stuff is likely perpetrators coming from [Miami Gardens] or Opa-locka, looking for easy pickings."
FMU's vice president for administration, Harold R. Clarke Jr., says he's "not going to speculate" on the source of the crime. "Some of it may be coming, as you say, from outside," he allows and then touts security measures the school is in the process of implementing: 20 new surveillance cameras and a $120,000 front-gate system that will access criminal records from the license plates of visitors to campus. Any nonstudents with rap sheets or outstanding warrants will not be allowed in. "We are very concerned about the safety of our students," he says.
If that state-of-the-art gate can help plug the steady stream of security-related litigation that has plagued the university's administration in the past five years, it will have been a bargain.
LAW 404: Litigation Concerning Stalker- or Mob-Related Injuries
In the summer of 2002, a Florida Memorial junior and campus resident named Phylise Johnson ended a summer fling with 24-year-old Opa-locka resident Jervon Antonio Smith, who was not a student. She was thoroughly creeped out by the "compulsive liar" who intermittently claimed to be a policeman and a pastor even though he was in fact unemployed, she later explained in a court deposition. He had secretly stalked Johnson since seeing her in an FMU commercial.
Smith didn't take the breakup well, she claimed. He "flattened the tires" on her Honda, showed up at her part-time job to "smack [her] around the face," and stole her cell phone. Smith — who has since been accused by another woman of "repeat violence" and has been convicted of making threatening phone calls — vowed to end Johnson's life, saying, "Bitch, you going to be pushing daisies," she claimed.
Johnson "developed a serious concern" about her stalker and "on several occasions" contacted school officials and security guards to warn they "should keep a look-out for Mr. Smith," according to a claim later filed in Miami-Dade civil court.
The guards — a six-man force then subcontracted from USA Security and each paid an hourly wage ranging from $8.25 to $9.50, according to contracts filed in court — ignored the warnings, Johnson later claimed. In the early morning of September 7, 2002, Smith easily bypassed the vehicle checkpoint by simply walking on to campus. He was a former Florida Memorial guard himself, Johnson explained in court, so he knew of that glaring flaw in campus security.
Smith loitered in Johnson's residency hall for "over an hour," waiting for her, "without being confronted by any agents, security personnel, or employees." At 9 a.m., she was pulling into the parking lot when Smith suddenly appeared.
"He swung open the door and was... pulling me out and hitting me in the face," she later recalled under oath. Striking back while trying to escape, she "stumbled out of the car" and passed out, but not before witnessing his final brutal flourish: "I could see his foot stomping my face."
Four of Johnson's teeth were kicked loose. She would required reconstructive surgery to put her upper lip back together.
Convicted of aggravated stalking and battery, Jervon Smith spent 270 days in prison. In May 2004, Phylise Johnson filed suit against Florida Memorial and USA Security alleging negligence for failing to prevent the attack, "staff an adequate number of security guards," or implement "a system... to prevent unauthorized individuals" from entering campus. In November 2005, the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
About a year later, Florida Memorial dismissed USA, signing an $800,000-per-year contract with Vanguard Security, according to a press release at the time. Soon enough, the latest company also would find itself in litigious soup stemming from a violent incident on campus.
The night and early morning following Barack Obama's presidential win on November 4, 2008, was one of nearly pure joy on FMU's campus, recalls student Robert, who was then a freshman. But "there were a few ignorant folks who just saw it as another opportunity to get drunk and act rowdy," he says.
Around 2 that morning, according to a police report, Angelia Franklin received an alarming phone call from her niece Ciera Warren, an FMU student. She heard only crying and "No!" being shouted in the background. Angelia woke up her three teenage children — Jimmy, Joshua, and Keianna — packed them into her car, and headed for the campus.
After being waved through by security guards, who, according to the police report, "stated that they had heard something about a disturbance on campus," the family encountered a "mob" scene in the parking lot outside of Ciera's residence hall — a large group of young men and women "agitated" and chanting. When Keianna got out of the car to find her cousin, she was attacked by a "smaller girl" who began "striking and punching her." When Keianna's 17-year-old brother Jimmy jumped out of the car to defend her, "a large crowd of boys surrounded [him] and began to hit and kick him" as his mother screamed in horror. As the smaller girl, now armed with a baseball bat, smashed through the car's front window, another female student threw rocks at the family trapped in the vehicle.
Suddenly, a gunshot rang out. The attackers scattered, and Jimmy was left bleeding on the pavement, shot in the arm. Security guards, who arrived too late to prevent the shooting, only impeded the family's "escape" from campus by snatching her car keys, Angelia Franklin would later claim.
Four men and two women were arrested for the mob attack. The two female students involved, Melene Lisme and Shon-Ashley Runcie, were expelled. A 20-year-old nonstudent named Job Howard was "positively identified" as shooting Jimmy Franklin and charged with attempted murder.
It was a particularly violent 24 hours on campus. The night following the mob attack, five males — wearing black bandannas over their faces and brandishing handguns and a crowbar — stormed a student's dorm room and held him at silent gunpoint before making off with his laptop.
In May 2009, Angelia Franklin filed suit against Florida Memorial and Vanguard. Among the claims: The university "should have known that there was a history of criminal activity" at the school.
Thompson, FMU's interim president, declines to comment about the incident, citing "pending litigation."
A few weeks after the shooting, Florida Memorial hired yet another security company, Pennsylvania-based Allied Barton. Vice president for administration Clarke insists the timing was coincidental: "One had absolutely nothing to do with the other." He declines to explain the reason for the new appointment, except that Allied Barton "has extensive experience with college-age students."
But the way several students tell it, the new guards often regard their FMU charges with hostility. "They treat us like prisoners in a minimum-security prison," says one student. And in the case of Emory Mitchell, the guards held a personal grudge.
Mitchell, a Fort Myers native, spent most of his teenage years in foster care after his maternal grandmother, who was his guardian, passed away. A junior majoring in social work at FMU before he was suspended, he wants to one day found an intervention program.
But October 19 wasn't the first time Mitchell had been in cuffs. On a Friday afternoon six months earlier, surveillance cameras filmed him at a North Miami Sears stuffing $122 worth of merchandise into a duffel bag and attempting to walk out. After being arrested, he was ordered to pay $438 in court costs and fines.
Mitchell has a cocky swagger that tends to either endear or irritate. For Harry Monestime, the muscular Allied Barton guard, it was the latter, Mitchell claims: "He just had a bone to pick with me. He would always stop me, to accuse me of smoking [weed] on campus, and he would take my ID and write my name down in his book."
According to Stephon Louis, a sophomore who was in the student activity center the night of the fracas, Monestime admitted to disliking Mitchell minutes before approaching him. "I can't stand him," Louis recalls the guard saying as Mitchell sauntered by. "He thinks he's a tough guy."
Allied Barton officials did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story, so New Times attempted to interview the guards at their homes. Twenty-eight-year-old Joseph Kensler, whom Mitchell accuses of whacking him with a nightstick, had a question of his own when he answered the door at his home near El Portal. "Why didn't they send me a court date?" he asked, meaning a deposition appointment in Mitchell's criminal case. None of the guards showed up to testify, resulting in the charges being dropped.
Asked if he believes he acted professionally on October 19, Kensler clammed up. "The thing is, I can't say anything," he lamented before gently shutting the door.
Ronnie Finley, the heavy-browed, baby-faced guard who lost his post at FMU after he pulled his gun on the crowd of students, also refused a reporter at his Miramar home.
The school admits no plans to switch security companies yet again. And when a reporter asks if there's any consideration of disarming the guards in light of Finley's frantic gun-brandishing, the idea is met with derisive laughter. "Not in Dade," says Barbara Edwards, executive assistant to the president. "They would just take the place over."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.