At Florida Memorial University, Surviving Beatings, Gunshots, and Assaults Is Part of the Curriculum | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

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At Florida Memorial University, Surviving Beatings, Gunshots, and 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 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 campus 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 historic 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 upon 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 bad-mouth," 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 that 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."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts

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