A student is suing Washington State University, claiming the university’s alleged negligence and violation of federal law resulted in a failure to protect her from a hostile campus environment in 2015.
Then an 18-year-old freshman at WSU, Dominique Stewart, who is black, was attending a social event at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house Feb. 21, 2015, when she was allegedly called a racial slur – the n-word – and told to “get the (expletive) away from me,” by a fraternity member.
The incident sparked student protests and later led to a Black Lives Matter movement at the university.
WSU’s Office for Equal Opportunity initiated an investigation into the incident Feb. 23, 2015.
The Office of Student Conduct then conducted a hearing on the matter, and the fraternity member was ousted from the fraternity and the school. But, according to the lawsuit, Stewart claims she continued to receive harassment from WSU students and members of the public on social media after the incident.
The lawsuit alleges in a March 1, 2015, meeting between Stewart, her mother and WSU Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Melynda Huskey, that Huskey allegedly suggested the possibility of relocating Stewart to different housing without offering housing contacts or arranged visitations for Stewart and her mother, and told the family “nothing could be done” about the mother’s requests to have Stewart chaperoned to classes or for the university to take other measures to address her safety concerns.
According to the lawsuit, Huskey provided the police chief’s number but did not contact the chief directly – a federal requirement under Title VI and Title IX.
After Stewart’s mother called days later to express her disappointment in how the meeting went, Huskey allegedly responded by sending an email to Stewart of a guide containing general emergency contact information.
Stewart also claims in the suit that she was the target of another racist attack on March 29, 2015. She alleges in the suit that, as she was walking down WSU’s Greek Row, a passenger in a car of “young white males” threw a piece of chicken at Stewart, yelling the n-word and a term synonymous with “slut” at her.
Stewart called the campus police, whom she claims declined to assist her and transferred her to local police, who where “indifferent,” telling Stewart they were not able to physically respond but invited her to look for the car’s license plate number and call back, according to the lawsuit.
Stewart’s mother visited with WSU a second time April 2, 2015. According to the lawsuit, by April 9, 2015, the OEO had issued an investigation memo regarding the initial February incident, concluding the Phi Delta Theta fraternity member violated WSU’s policy regarding discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.
“No other WSU fraternity members of students actively harassing (Stewart) through social media in the aftermath were investigated,” the lawsuit claims. “On information and belief, no Title VI or Title IX investigations were conducted.”
The lawsuit also details an April 2015 meeting between Stewart, her friends, the late WSU President Elson S. Floyd and Director of Diversity Education Jeff Guillory, where Stewart claims she was victim-blamed by Floyd.
“The ‘conversation,’” the lawsuit claims, “was instead a victim-shaming, racially divisive lecture, in which President Floyd informed the young women that they did not ‘belong’ at a ‘white’ fraternity and indicating that they should have known better.”
According to the lawsuit, at the end of the lecture, Floyd and Guillory gave Stewart and her friends commemorative coins and told them WSU was “building a ‘cool’ new student center containing an African-American section where they could ‘belong.’”
Stewart is seeking damages from WSU, to be proven in court, claiming the university’s “implicit endorsement of the attacks” caused her severe physical and emotional distress, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, social isolation, lack of confidence and weight gain.
Phil Weiler, vice president of marketing and communications for WSU, declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing federal law, but said the university “took immediate and swift action to investigate and address the concerns raised” once it became aware of the incident.
“We believe the legal process will show how our actions taken map to our values of supporting all students in their educational pursuits, regardless of their ethnicity, race, sexual identity, religion or background.”
The federal lawsuit was filed April 16 in Washington’s Western District Court.