By Hailey Murphy
Washington State University is being sued for alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX and the Clery Act by former student Dominique Stewart after she was verbally and physically harassed by other students at WSU.
Melynda Huskey, Western’s current vice president for Enrollment and Student Services, was Dean of Students and interim Vice President for Student Affairs at WSU during these investigations. The lawsuit alleges she did not follow federal law in handling the incidents.
Huskey declined to comment on the grounds of pending litigation.
Stewart’s complaint said that WSU mishandled the investigation of these incidents and failed to protect her from discrimination on the basis of her race, resulting in physical and emotional distress.
On Feb. 21, 2015, Stewart was standing in front of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house when a member of the frat house called Stewart, who is black, a racial slur, as well as a “bitch”, according to the plaintiff complaint. Witnesses reported seeing members of the frat house laughing about the comments afterwards.
The incident sparked rallies across WSU’s campus, according to the complaint, with some– but not all– of the rallies protesting Stewart’s treatment.
Anne Bremner, Stewart’s attorney, said it’s unclear how the incident came to be so publicized. WSU, in their response to the plaintiff complaint, denied that such rallies occurred.
An investigation was launched by WSU’s Office of Equal Opportunity, and the student who used the slur was expelled.
Stewart’s mother traveled to WSU early in March after the first incident of harassment to have a meeting with Huskey. At the meeting, Huskey suggested that Stewart move housing, but offered no housing contracts or contact information, according to the complaint.
Huskey also gave Stewart the university police chief’s phone number, without the permission of the chief.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments, and under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Huskey was to contact the police chief herself, Bremner said.
Additionally, when Stewart’s mother asked for someone to escort Stewart to class, or for any other means to keep Stewart safe, Huskey replied that “nothing [could] be done.”
WSU denied this allegation in their response to the complaint.
After a second incident of harassment, Stewart’s mother learned that Huskey had not been in contact with local or campus police, according to the complaint.
“[Huskey] had duties specifically herself to contact law enforcement and follow up with them,” Bremner said. “She had a duty to investigate– or cause to be investigated– the others at the fraternity and the individuals who threw chicken into Ms. Stewart’s face… This would’ve been a crime that was reportable, a hate crime, and it was never reported, which also subjects the university to forfeiture of federal funds, and that includes federal funds that are given through scholarships, so there’s a number of kind of potential penalties when you’re dealing non-compliance of Title IX.”
As stated in the plaintiff complaint, there’s no indication that a Title IX or Title VI investigation was ever conducted. WSU denies this in their response.
Phil Weiler, vice president for Marketing and Communications at WSU, said WSU took the necessary actions to protect Stewart.
“In addition to expelling the student who violated our code of conduct, we also provided immediate resources to the student who brought these concerns to our attention. We continued to support her as she completed her degree at WSU,” Weiler said in an email. “We believe the legal process will show that the actions taken map to our values of supporting all students in their educational pursuits, regardless of their ethnicity, race, sexual identity, religion or background.”
Another incident of harassment then occurred on March 25, when a student from a car full of white males threw a piece of chicken at Stewart, again using the same racial slur and calling her a thot, according to the complaint.
Stewart called campus police, as instructed by Huskey, who transferred her to local police. Local police told Stewart they couldn’t physically respond, but to get a license plate number and call back, according to the complaint.
The student was investigated by the Office of Equal Opportunity and was found to have violated WSU’s policy on discrimination. However, little punishment was given, according to the complaint.
At the end of April 2015, Stewart and a few friends were invited to engage in a conversation with Elson Floyd, WSU’s president at the time, who is also African-American
According to the complaint, Floyd engaged in victim blaming, telling Stewart and her friends that they didn’t “belong” at a “white” fraternity.
“[Floyd] basically said, you shouldn’t be hanging out with the white boys, or something like that, you shouldn’t be in a white fraternity,” Bremner said. “That’s part of the failure in our complaint that we allege, is that it wasn’t just with Ms. Huskey but also with the highest office of WSU, the president saying– there’s nothing we can do, it’s not going to go any farther. So that was the failure to investigate, to make her safe and to hold people accountable.”
According to the complaint, Floyd then told the students they were building a new student center with an “African-American section” where they could “belong.”
WSU denies all of the above allegations, except for the allegation that such a meeting took place.
As a result of WSU’s lack of intervention and isolation from her family, Stewart was diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and gained 50 lbs, Bremner said. Stewart has now graduated from WSU.
Updated 6/5 to correct typos.