The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

24 August 2005

The elephant in the room has company

Annoying registration here, so here's the paragraph that matters:

Riverside [California] Community College, recently cited for poorly handling student-discrimination complaints, was named in a federal lawsuit Friday by a woman who says her civil rights were violated when a teacher asked whether she had a green card. The suit on behalf of Marisol Henriquez, 43, of Riverside, says the incident took place in front of 14 other students in December 2004. It alleges that speech instructor Dan Tuckerman asked the woman whether she was using a fake name, was in the country legally and had a green card, the document issued to foreigners who are legal U.S. residents. College spokesman Jim Parsons said the school is doing all it can to address Henriquez's complaints. The lawsuit says Henriquez, a native of Santiago, Chile, has a permanent resident alien card.

Let's see if I have this straight. We're no longer permitted to use the term "illegal aliens"; they are "undocumented workers." And, by the way, we're no longer to mention any, you know, documents.

I can't think of any particular reason why a teacher should have to ask someone if she has a green card — that would seem to be the business of Admissions, and the teacher in question sounds like he was being boorish for the sheer delight of it — but an actual violation of civil rights? Can I file suit if I get carded at the liquor store?

And, while we're on the subject, would it still be a violation of her civil rights if she didn't have a green card?

(Via Tongue Tied, this week under the baton of John Ray.)

Addendum: Matt Deatherage identifies a behavioral pattern on the part of the college's faculty, which in part overrides my point. See Comments.

Posted at 7:38 AM to Political Science Fiction


Ah, for some reason, we're on opposite sides of the river today.

Actually, I think that paragraph (actually, several grafs in annoying one-sentence-per-graf newspaper style) is only one side of the story. Consider this:

The inquiry in front of her classmates left her "emotionally stunned and then devastated -- she had never been embarrassed in such a manner before in her life," the lawsuit says.

and:

Henriquez seeks a similar solution in her lawsuit. It names as defendants RCC; Richard Ramirez, the school's director of diversity, equity and compliance; Tuckerman; and the Riverside law firm that contacted Henriquez. She seeks a written apology published in a general-circulation newspaper, cultural diversity and sensitivity training for RCC staff, a revision of the college's complaint procedures and a reclassification of her grade from "C" to "A" in the class in which the incident occurred. The suit seeks no specific amount of money.

So this girl, for no reason other than the color of her skin and perhaps her accent, was asked by her professor, in front of her peers, if she was lying about her identity and in the country illegally - somewhat akin to a professor asking the only black student in a class if he's on probation or parole because it's "statistically likely," perhaps. She becomes horribly upset and files a complaint with the college.

Seven months later, the college still hasn't figured out what happened in those few seconds in front of 14 witnesses, and wants more time, despite having hired independent counsel to investigate it:

Henriquez said she found the communications from the independent counsel and the college, which both urged her to keep the matter confidential, intimidating and was left feeling as though she, rather than the school, was under investigation. Riverside lawyer Mark Blankenship, Henriquez's attorney, said the process should be simple, without the need for lawyers. "I wish I didn't need to be here," he said.

Three other students who had previously complained about latino bias at the school hadn't had their complaints answered properly, either, as found by the Bush Education Department, and one of them was removed from a class and given a failing grade as retaliation for complaining at all. The school's complaint policy has been ruled insufficient by everyone who investigated it, and the school appears to have no way of controlling the Limbaugh-like moments of its faculty. (We don't know how many professors are involved, but I'm guessing it's more than one.)

She's complained to the college and gotten nowhere. She complained to the California Community College chancellor's office and got nowhere - in fact, she was investigated herself and told to keep everything quiet if she knew what was good for her. So she went to court, thinking (quite properly) that being treated this way for the color of her skin or her accent is a violation of the equal protection clause from a state-funded agency.

She wants a public apology, staff training so they stop doing this, a revised complaint procedure so other students don't have to go through it, and a revision of what may have been a retaliatory "C" in the class where the problem happened. She has not asked for money yet, and if she starts seeking huge punitive damages, I reserve the right to change my opinion.

But tell me, what should she have done instead of going to court? She followed all the rules outlined and they wouldn't give her the time of day - they tried to scare her into dropping the complaint, and retaliated against other students who had similar problems.

How many letters demanding something be done was she supposed to write and get ignored before you or John Ray would let her escalate the matter?

Posted by: Matt at 10:14 AM on 24 August 2005

Well, if this is a pattern — and there is, I believe, a legal definition of what qualifies as a pattern — then litigation may be the only answer. (In which case, mea culpa for not following up another source in this matter.)

I admit to an anti-lawsuit bias in this realm, but if things are that bad.... well, perhaps you might send that text along to John Ray.

(I pride myself on a certain insensitivity, but if the school is routinely pulling this sort of thing, they deserve to be sued.)

Posted by: CGHill at 10:54 AM on 24 August 2005

All I have is the newspaper article, easily accessed via bugmenot.com, but it lists both her attempts at resolution and the Education Department's response after three other complaints from Latino students, including grade retaliation for having complained at all.

But at the very least, the college has acknowledged that its complaint procedure was not up to snuff, and there's a serious dispute about whether some members of the faculty have problems with Latino students.

If it turns into a lottery ticket, I may object. At the moment a lawsuit may be all that gets these administrators off their low horses and into the business of making it possible for students to attend class without being harassed by the faculty.

Posted by: Matt at 1:52 PM on 24 August 2005

I don't think it's necessarily going to wind up as a meal ticket for a passel of lawyers, although I'd be greatly disappointed if it did.

There's a lot of Boy Who Cried Wolf in the air these days, but the fact that some complaints of discrimination are bogus should not be allowed to obscure the fact that some of them are indeed genuine. (Which I should keep in mind next time I jump the gun.)

Posted by: CGHill at 2:35 PM on 24 August 2005