By Emily Le Coz
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - The University of Mississippi wants to question three white male students who may have been involved in draping a noose and a Confederate flag over a statue of James Meredith, the African-American student who braved segregationist mobs to integrate the school in 1962, campus police said on Friday.
Calvin Sellers, the university chief of police, said attorneys for the three 19-year-olds from Georgia wanted campus police to produce an arrest warrant before they would allow them to question the students about the act of vandalism, which occurred early on Sunday.
Sellers said the three students failed to appear at a pre-arranged meeting on Thursday.
"The University Police Department had gathered enough evidence by late Wednesday to bring charges through the student judicial process against two of the students, and both state and federal authorities were working in close coordination to determine whether criminal charges were applicable," the university said in a statement on Friday.
The FBI's field office in Jackson said in a statement on Friday that along with university police, they have expanded the investigation to determine whether federal law was broken.
Meanwhile, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity indefinitely suspended its chapter at the school after learning the three students suspected of involvement were members, according to a statement released by its national headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.
The fraternity said it also asked the chapter to cease all operations as it conducts an investigation into the matter.
"It is embarrassing that these men had previously identified with our fraternity," Sigma Phi Epsilon CEO Brian Warren said in the statement after the Mississippi chapter expelled the three and turned over their identities to authorities.
LEAD IN CASE
Earlier this week, the university's alumni association offered a $25,000 reward for tips about the incident, and Sellers said school officials indicated they planned to pursue federal hate crime charges. Sellers also said the reward had generated numerous leads.
A construction worker on the campus in Oxford, Mississippi, reported seeing two men wrapping the bronze statue of Meredith in an old Georgia state flag bearing the Confederate logo. The vandals were also heard shouting racial slurs, Sellers said.
Many students on the campus were incensed by the noose incident, especially since it took place during February, which is Black History Month, said Adam Ganucheau, a 21-year-old senior and editor of the daily student newspaper at the school, popularly known as "Ole Miss."
Ganucheau said the incident sparked student-led counter protests and earnest discussions about race in official meetings and on social media.
"People from the outside looking in often can think that all the students on our campus are running around yelling racial slurs, but that's just not the case," he said. "Unfortunately, it's just a very small group of students who have some really messed up problems."
Ganucheau, who wrote about the incident and has been covering the campus reaction, said it was important for the student newspaper to continue the dialogue.
The campus was the scene of riots in 1962, when hundreds of segregationists protested the admission of Meredith, the school's first black student. Two men died and dozens of people were wounded as federal officials escorted Meredith to campus.
In 2012, the campus made national headlines again when a group of students yelled racial slurs at an impromptu protest after President Barack Obama's re-election.
The university has taken steps to shed remnants of its segregationist past in an effort to welcome all students. The school ditched its sports mascot, Colonel Reb, which many claimed looked like a white plantation owner, for the current mascot, a black bear.
(Writing by David Adams, additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Brendan O'Brien; editing by David Gregorio and G Crosse)