Dante Harris, who took a picture of the assistant commandant of cadets in a University of North Georgia bathroom, appeared before a college disciplinary panel Wednesday. The panel could suspend or expel him or revoke his $70,000 military scholarship.
Harris, a 21-year-old junior, took the photograph of Major Richard Neikirk, who had lowered his pants below his buttocks while using a urinal in November. Harris sent the picture to three of his friends, who shared it with hundreds of people on mass messaging platform GroupMe.
Once a homeless teenager, Harris was one of 42 students in Georgia to receive the UNG Military Scholarship in 2014, which provides $70,000 for his tuition, room, meals, books, uniforms and fees. It also provided him National Guard weekend drill pay, the GI Bill, pay for attending Army basic and advanced training and Army ROTC contract pay. Harris would be commissioned into the Georgia Army National Guard as an officer, entitling him to higher pay than enlistment — if he graduates and keeps his commission.
Neikirk, a Citadel graduate and retired Marine who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, declined to comment while the case is pending.
The panel will make its decision by Friday.
Amber Massey, who has served a mother-like role since Harris said he was kicked out by his biological mother in high school, served as a character witness during the hearing. She read the panel the essay Harris wrote when applying for the university because she hoped it would give them an insight into the hardship he faced before college.
“My father chose to never meet me, my mother chose to never support me,” Harris wrote in 2014. “I live … with friends and neighbors because my mother decided to put a roof over her boyfriend’s head instead of her own son.”
Massey met Harris at Columbus High School because her nephew was on the basketball team with him. She realized he was homeless when she gave him a ride home from practice during his senior year, she said. Motivated by her faith to help him, she paid his graduation fees, helped him register for SNAP (formerly food stamps) and even rented a tuxedo for his prom.
“We met at the right time,” she said. “The stars aligned.”
Massey said the panelists were respectful. They informed Massey that both Neikirk and Harris can appeal their decision, she said. She would be happy with any penalty as long as Harris can keep his scholarship and commission and eventually graduate from UNG, she said.
“We didn’t feel defeated, but we don’t want to be too optimistic because you just don’t know,” she said of the hearing.
Harris also faces two criminal charges: unlawful eavesdropping or surveillance, a felony, and transmission of photography depicting nudity, a misdemeanor. He faces up to six years in prison and a fine of $51,000. He has been arrested and released on bond but not indicted. Massey posted his $7,500 bond.
Harris is still at UNG and getting ready for finals. He went straight from the disciplinary hearing to an exam.
“It’s a lot I’ve been carrying on my shoulders (this semester),” he said, noting that a lot of people ask him about his situation every day.
If UNG gives him a long suspension or expulsion, it will be hard for him, Harris said. To transfer to another university, he would need a letter from his dean attesting that he was in good standing, and it would be difficult to get scholarships with a pending felony.
Harris is staying positive, though. “As long as you think positive, you can get through anything,” he said. “My whole life I’ve learned things happen, and you’ve just got to make a way.”