Arrest in series of sexual assaults roils a North Carolina private university

By Sarah Nagem

The arrest of a convicted sex offender accused of sexually assaulting three women in three months at St. Andrews University in North Carolina is raising questions about how the private school handles safety concerns. 

Mison Mickle, 23, was arrested Jan. 12 on several charges, including failure to register as a sex offender, according to the Laurinburg Police Department. Mickle was a student at St. Andrews and a member of the school’s wrestling team. 

St. Andrews, which has fewer than 1,000 students at its Scotland County campus, was already facing scrutiny for its response to an unrelated sexual assault on campus in 2021. A student filed a lawsuit in September alleging the school further traumatized her after she reported that she had been assaulted by a student on the men’s soccer team. 

Since 2011, St. Andrews has been a branch of Webber International University in Florida. Keith Wade, president of Webber, told the Border Belt Independent that St. Andrews “takes all allegations of sexual misconduct on and off campus very seriously.”  

“Nothing is more important than the safety and welfare of our students and staff,” he said in an email. 

But some alumni and former students say they lack faith in the university’s administration. Ellen Bernhardt, who was appointed interim president in 2020, recently left the job. 

Donald Meisel, who graduated from St. Andrews in 1976 and briefly served as president of the school’s alumni council, said Mickle’s arrest – and a lack of information from the university about the alleged sexual assaults – was “alarming.” 

The Border Belt Independent was unable to determine if St. Andrews alerted students in January about the series of reported sexual assaults that led to Mickle’s arrest. Under the federal Clery Act, colleges are required to notify students in a timely manner about certain crimes, including sexual violence, if there is an ongoing safety threat. 

Laurinburg police responded to St. Andrews at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 12 after a student’s mother called 911, Lt. Jeremy White told the Border Belt Independent. That’s when three students said they had been sexually assaulted in student housing: an 18-year-old the day before, a 19-year-old in November and a 22-year-old in October.  

It’s unclear if St. Andrews knew about the incidents in October and November before they were reported to police.

Mickle, who joined the Army after finishing high school in 2018, was convicted by a military judge at Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2020 of three counts of attempted abusive sexual contact and three counts of assault consummated by a battery, records show. He was ordered to serve 12 months behind bars and was dishonorably discharged. 

Mickle’s name was added to the sex offender registry in South Carolina, his home state. But he did not register with North Carolina’s sex offender registry as required by law when he moved to Scotland County, White said. 

Convicted sex offenders are allowed to attend and play sports at colleges and universities. Wade declined to say whether St. Andrews knew about Mickle’s criminal history when he enrolled at the university. 

Mickle was a state champion wrestler at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, according to local media and recruiting reports. He notched several wins for St. Andrews, which belongs to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, at a large wrestling meet in November, according to the Richmond County Daily Journal

He is being held at the Scotland County Detention Center under a $1.5 million bail, records show. 

Lawsuit against St. Andrews

White did not say why the students who reported they were sexually assaulted last fall waited months before talking to police. 

But the lawsuit, which was filed in Scotland County Superior Court, paints a picture of a system that intimidated and threatened students who spoke out about a reported sexual assault on Sept. 25, 2021. 

The plaintiff in the case, identified only as Jane Doe, said she was sexually assaulted in a dorm room by Paulo Manzoni, a men’s soccer player from Italy. 

After the assault, described in the lawsuit as “violent, painful, and terrifying,” the woman filed a police report. The lawsuit says an arrest warrant was issued for Manzoni charging him with second-degree forcible sexual offense. 

White declined to comment on the case, citing “an ongoing investigation.” Manzoni has since returned to Italy, according to the lawsuit. 

Four days after the reported assault, St. Andrews expelled the woman’s friend who was “frustrated by the University’s lack of response,” according to the lawsuit. The friend, identified as TM, had reportedly been part of a social media discussion that included a picture of Manzoni and the words “say his name.” 

Meanwhile, the university hosted assemblies to address the reported sexual assault with students. According to the lawsuit, Bernhardt began the assemblies by saying she wanted to “separate fact from fiction and rumors” and gave details about the victim and the investigation. 

White also attended the assemblies, where he talked about “why women might falsely allege sexual assault,” according to the lawsuit. 

One former student, who spoke to the Border Belt Independent this week on the condition of anonymity, said she was angry after the assembly. 

“I remember walking out of that meeting and going up to (Bernhardt) afterwards and being like, ‘Wow you had such an amazing opportunity to talk to your students about sexual assault, which happens on all college campuses. … You had the chance to talk to your students and reach out to them and let them know that you’re working on something. That’s all you had to say, that this is a problem that you care about,” said the student, who transferred to another school last year. 

St. Andrews made several other missteps and failed to adequately support the woman in the hours and days following the reported assault, according to the lawsuit. After the woman told an athletic coach what had happened, the coach took her to see Elizabeth Hernandez, dean of students and the Title IX coordinator at St. Andrews. Hernandez’s husband was the coach of the men’s soccer team. 

Hernandez is named as a defendant in the case, along with Bernhardt and two other employees. 

At one point, according to the lawsuit, administrators asked the woman about a rumor they had heard “that she still wanted to sleep with the man who she had accused of rape.”

Two days after the attack, Manzoni reported to the university that he was beaten by several men on campus. In response, the lawsuit says, the school’s director of housing and resident life banged on the woman’s dorm room door at 2 a.m. and told her to speak with a Laurinburg police detective. 

“This experience was traumatic and overwhelming … and caused her mental anguish and a deep feeling of fear and betrayal,” the lawsuit says.  

Shift in culture

St. Andrews, with roots dating back to the late 1800s, has seen a lot of change in the past several years. 

The university was on the brink of financial ruin when it went under the umbrella of Webber International University. While alumni say the move saved the school, some question what they describe as a major cultural shift from a small and respected liberal arts college to a larger operation with eight campuses, including one in Charlotte. 

The school, where tuition is more than $29,000 a year, has nearly doubled its enrollment, raising concerns about the amount of loan debt students might be taking on. 

St. Andrews University, which has roots that date to the late 1800s, became a branch of Webber International University in 2011.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

“Colleges (and their students) are not assets that can be bought, sold, or transformed by market

principles alone; public investment in federal aid and concern for student welfare requires a

higher standard,” Congresswoman Kathy Manning, who represents several counties in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, wrote in 2021 in a letter to the U.S. secretary of education. 

Meisel said he was frustrated when the university, under Bernhardt’s rule, disbanded the alumni council in 2021 and created a new council. 

“I actually feel this responsibility to the alumni I was serving to keep asking questions,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing.”   

Among his questions: St. Andrews’ ties to Arthur Keiser, known for operating for-profit colleges in Florida. Keiser University, which he continues to run, became a not-for-profit institution in 2011.  

Bernhardt “was being evaluated as a doctoral candidate in Keiser University’s

business administration program” while leading St. Andrews through major growth, Manning said in her letter. 

Bernhardt largely avoided the media during her time as interim president at St. Andrews. She did not respond to the Border Belt Independent’s request in May for an interview. 

The university is now searching for a new president who will undoubtedly be confronted with questions about safety and how to handle reports of sexual assaults. 

The former student who asked to remain anonymous said she has many fond memories of her time at St. Andrews. 

“You meet lovely people,” she said. “You have wonderful professors.” 

But she said the administration was a big factor in her decision to transfer. “You knew that something was just kind of off.” 

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