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Missouri Students Apologize for Cotton Ball Prank

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Two University of Missouri students have apologized for scattering cotton balls outside the Black Culture Center in an incident that heightened racial tensions during Black History Month.

Nineteen-year-old freshman Sean Fitzgerald and 21-year-old senior Zachary Tucker were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of hate crimes and possible felony tampering. They have not been charged.

In a letter to campus leaders, local prosecutors and student groups issued Friday by their attorneys, the two ROTC students apologized for their “inexcusable judgment.”

The statement described “a series of foolish acts” that included riding a Missouri tiger statue on Francis Quadrangle, hurtling another statue at Memorial Stadium and hoisting a pirate flag at the ROTC building. Both students have been suspended from school.

“Sean and Zachary deeply regret the pain their actions have caused others and the negative attention this incident has attracted to the campus and community,” the statement reads. “This type of behavior is totally out of character for each of these young men and they hope for the opportunity to prove this to the community.”

Nathan Stephens, director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, met with Tucker and his parents Wednesday. Stephens said he accepts the students’ apology.

“We don’t hold any ill feelings,” he said. “Our intent is to see these two gentlemen learn from this experience, and to develop and grow as people.”

Chris Slusher, Tucker’s attorney, called the episode “kids doing dumb things,” not a hate crime.

“There are some very serious questions about whether the felony hate crime statute applies,” he said. “We’re confident that this is not a felony.”

The Feb. 26 incident sparked widespread concern on the 30,000-student campus. A town hall meeting Monday night drew an overflow crowd of several hundred students and administrators. Many participants said the cotton balls, which invoked images of slavery, indicated broader racial divides on campus.

By Friday, the tenor had shifted to healing, not hate.

Chancellor Dr. Brady Deaton and University of Missouri system President Dr. Gary Forsee visited informally with students over lunch at the center, eating pizza and wearing “Pick UNITY” buttons. Students planned a “United We Stand” rally on the steps of Jesse Hall, the main administration building, for Friday night.

Deaton described a “tremendous will to unite” and “not letting this event, as upsetting as it was, to derail forward movement.”

For Lysaundra Campbell, a sophomore from Kansas City, Mo., the cotton ball protests and unity rallies have shown a campus supportive of its Black students.

“What these two guys did aren’t the views of Mizzou,” she said.

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