ECSU gets new interim leader as state probes police wrongdoing

jstancill@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2013 

  • Elizabeth City State University

    Location: Elizabeth City, in the Albemarle Sound region of northeastern North Carolina, about 165 miles northeast of Raleigh

    Founded: 1891

    History: Public, historically black university; was once Elizabeth City State Teachers College.

    Enrollment: 2,878 students in fall 2012; most are undergraduates and from North Carolina.

    Tuition and fees: $4,150 in-state and $14,868 out-of-state for the 2012-13 school year

Elizabeth City State University is in turmoil as state investigators look into wrongdoing on campus and the Elizabeth City police have taken over the review of 125 criminal cases that were improperly investigated by campus police.

The UNC system campus in northeastern North Carolina is under scrutiny by the State Bureau of Investigation after the revelation that campus police were not looking into crime reports, including 18 reported sexual assaults. An N.C. Department of Justice spokeswoman said Friday that the investigation is focused on obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

Last week, Chancellor Willie Gilchrist announced his retirement effective June 30. That came a week after the school’s police chief, Sam Beamon, stepped down. Several other officers have either resigned or been put on leave.

To maintain campus security, Elizabeth City police officers and reinforcements from other UNC campuses have stepped in to provide coverage. The university has hired John Manley, former Rocky Mount police chief, to lead the campus force on an interim basis.

Gilchrist, 63, who has been the chancellor for nearly seven years, did not return a phone call Friday.

The university announced Friday that Elizabeth City police had cleared 60 of the 125 cases in question. Eight resulted in arrests; others were either declared inactive or closed because of lack of information or because a victim declined to cooperate. One case was unfounded. The university released a few reports of the cleared cases, which included assault, sexual harassment, drug offenses and burglary.

The remaining 65 cases are still under review by the city police department.

On Friday, UNC system President Tom Ross named an interim chancellor, former N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Charles Becton, to lead ECSU. Becton is completing a 10-month stint at the helm of N.C. Central University. He stepped in at the Durham campus last year after the abrupt departure of former Chancellor Charlie Nelms.

Ross could not be reached Friday. In a news release, he did not comment on the situation at ECSU. But of Becton, he said: “As he has demonstrated yet again during his tenure as interim chancellor at NCCU, he tackles every challenge handed to him with full commitment, great passion, and absolute integrity. I can think of no one who is better qualified to lead ECSU during this time of transition, and I am grateful that he has accepted this new assignment.”

‘Board is distressed’

Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said Becton had a steady hand during his time at NCCU. “We’re hopeful he’ll be able to get some things straightened out at Elizabeth City as well,” Hans said.

Because of the state investigation and personnel issues, Hans said he could not comment on the specifics of the ECSU situation.

“The board is distressed by the reports from campus, and we have high expectations for both improved student safety and school performance in the very near future,” he said.

ECSU is a historically black university and one of the smallest campuses in the UNC system. In the fall of 2012, the campus enrolled 2,878 students.

The trouble with the police department began to emerge April 19, when UNC’s General Administration was contacted about ECSU’s handling of an assault and sexual battery complaint.

UNC system officials notified the local district attorney, the N.C. Department of Justice and the SBI, said UNC spokeswoman Joni Worthington.

The campus and system collaborated on a review of the campus police department and took “immediate action to address problems found,” Worthington wrote in an email. Within a week, Beamon, the chief, was placed on administrative leave. He resigned May 10.

Independent review

ECSU has also hired Vermont-based Margolis Healy and Associates, a firm that specializes in campus and school safety compliance, to conduct an independent review of how crimes are reported. Worthington said the review could help the campus find and remedy any crime reporting errors and prevent future problems.

It’s unclear whether the campus also will face a federal investigation, but the U.S. Department of Education has been informed of the internal reviews, Worthington said. The federal Clery Act requires campuses to compile and publicly disclose crime statistics. A campus can face fines or loss of federal funding if it violates the law. Earlier this month, the Department of Education fined Yale University $165,000 for under-reporting sexual assaults in the past.

Across the nation, a flurry of federal investigations have been launched regarding campuses’ handling and reporting of sexual assault cases. UNC-Chapel Hill is the subject of two federal probes – one based on the Title IX gender discrimination law and another on alleged Clery Act violations. The university is cooperating with the investigations and has launched a detailed revision of its sexual assault policy.

The ECSU campus police and crime reporting compliance reviews by Margolis and Healy are likely to extend through the summer, Worthington said. It’s unclear when the SBI investigation will be complete.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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