By Vanessa D. Overbeck & Michael Diggin
By Vanessa D. Overbeck & Michael Diggin
In a recent investigation the Office for Civil Rights found that Riverside Community College placed the interests of faculty before the interests of those they serve: students.
According to the report compiled by the office, RCC failed to take “timely, reasonable and effective steps” to address student allegations of sexual and racial discrimination. Furthermore, the college’s negligence led to unlawful retaliation against student complainants.
The Office for Civil Rights’ fourth investigation of RCC focused on the district’s handling of three separate discrimination complaints against the same professor. (As a matter of law the Office for Civil Rights protects the identity of all involved parties. Thus, they are identified by title and number).
The first complainant, student 1, protested the professor’s use of Spanish street slang to deride students. He also objected to the professor’s gratuitous use of “vulgar sexual terms and graphics” unrelated to instruction. Student 3’s complaints rested on similar grounds. According to the report she also objected to the professor’s insinuation that women who imbibe alcohol and are assaulted are asking for it and she was ordered from class for voicing her dissenting opinion. Student 1 took his concerns to the department co-chair who advised him to poll the professor’s classes regarding these issues. Alerted to student 1’s polling activities, the professor contacted Campus Police. When student 1 next arrived for class the professor called Campus Police and had him escorted off campus. The dean of students then gave student 1 a note written on the back of her business card allowing him to return class. And though he did return to class he still received an “F” in the course.
Student 2 alleged that during a conversation outside of class regarding a test, “that the professor’s close physical proximity, eye contact and manner (suggested) that he was proposing that he and student 2 should initiate a social, possibly sexual, relationship.”
According to the report RCC failed to appropriately handle these discrimination allegations on several levels. The co-chair of the department involved failed to advise the students of their right to file a formal complaint with the Office for Diversity, Equity and Compliance. According to the Student Handbook, faculty and administrators are required to direct all discrimination complaints to this office. But these “published policies and procedures were not followed (and) persons with the training and authority to address these problems were cut out of the process,” the report stated.
In addition to neglecting to inform student 1 of his rights, the co-chair and the dean of students put the burden of resolution on him. The co-chair should’ve informed him that he was not “required to confront or work out problems with the person accused of unlawful discrimination” as district policy states.
According to the report, “there was little likelihood that (the Dean of Student’s business card) would serve as an effective shield against further conflict and, it did not.”
Without any inquiry into the circumstances of the conflict, the dean of Academic Affairs endorsed the forceful removal of the student from class. In other words, these sanctioned polling activities escalated the already heated situation and directly led to retaliation against student 1. Both the College’s internal investigation and the investigation of the Office for Civil Rights concluded that the student’s ejection from class was directly related to his objections to the professor’s instructional strategies and not to any adverse behavior on his part.
Although student 1 suffered two instances of retaliation at the hands of the professor the College did not consider his failing grade retaliatory, because of his supposedly low test scores.
However, the report states that “as a matter of law the burden was on the College to disprove that the failing grade given to (student 1) was also not retaliation.”
And no one will ever know for sure whether the student’s grade was mathematically correct, because according to the report, the College failed to properly investigate the issue and it did not retain any records related to the failing grade.
However, Associate Vice Chancellor Jim Parsons said, “The District followed its normal procedures.” But California state law requires a hearing for students who claim in writing that a grade is inaccurate. But according to the report, even after student 1 brought his complaints to the Board of Trustees, Chancellor Salvatore Rotella neither initiated such a hearing nor did he suggest it to the student.
As part of a resolution agreement with RCC the professor agreed to change student 1’s grade to a “W,” but the College refused the office’s request to wipe any mark related to this course from his transcripts. In addition to misdirecting and mishandling student 1’s complaint, nothing the College did was done in a timely manner. Student 1 filed his initial formal complaint on Nov. 13, 2001. He did not receive the results of his formal complaint until a year later. And it was a year more before student 1’s grade was changed to a “W” in exchange for the removal of a Notice of Reprimand in the professor’s personnel file.
According to the College’s own internal investigation and memorandums the professor in question had 20 general complaints and six sexual harassment complaints prior to the start of the Office for Civil Rights’ inquiry.
The office also found that it was not unusual for students to perform below their normal standards in his class. During the fall semester of 2001, when student 1 took the professor’s course, over half of the class failed. In comparison, only 16 percent of students earned an “F” in a similar course with a different instructor.
And though the professor claimed that his use of Spanish street slang was a “way of connecting with his students,” he could not tell investigators how many Spanish speaking students were in his courses or their level of fluency. And the office found the professor’s policy of issuing additional extra credit points to women based upon the cut of their clothing when they attend his concerts “even more disturbing.”Given the professor’s history, the office “judged student 1 to be more credible than the professor” and “under an equitable and effective system of responding to alleged discrimination/retaliation, the College District’s investigatory lapses should not have redounded to the detriment of the student and the affirmation of the professor.”
However, according to Parsons the law requires the District to examine each complaint separately. In other words, the college cannot take into consideration a faculty member’s prior misconduct when determining whether or not the accused is creating a hostile learning environment. As a consequence of the Office for Civil Right’s findings, the college must use an outside investigator for all future allegations against the professor and any other employees with multiple complaints of discrimination. The college must also publish guidance for students on how to file a discrimination complaint, as well as an explanation of the different types of resolutions.
Finally, according to Parsons the professor accused of sexual and racial discrimination who retaliated against students for disagreeing with his teaching methods is still employed at RCC.