A former dean and an IT employee have filed separate lawsuits against the college in San Diego Superior Court charging racial discrimination and retaliation. Dr. Donna Arnold, the former dean of the School of Arts and Communication, and PC Systems Technician Johnny Blankenship allege that the college systematically discriminates against African-American employees and is guilty of “outrageous conduct” and unfair employment practices. College officials said the suits have not been sent to the college and declined comment.
Shortly after the lawsuits were filed, former classified union president Andre Harris released to The Sun a death threat he said was mailed to his workplace in April 2015 after a letter he wrote published in The Sun said he had not experienced discrimination at SWC. Arnold and Blankenship were put on paid administrative leave after Harris received the letter, and their college computers were removed from their offices. Blankenship was reinstated about one month later, but Arnold never returned. She retired in June 2015.
Arnold has been at the center of the college’s latest upheaval of racial tension. She leaked a letter addressed to Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber to The Sun on Jan. 19, 2015 signed by four custodians and Blankenship that alleged serial racial incidents and threats against African-American employees going back years. Former CSEA Vice President Silvia Lugo said the custodians told investigators that Arnold wrote the letter, though she never showed it to the custodians and Blankenship. They were directed to sign a blank second page, Lugo said, that was later attached to the letter. Letters with signature pages attached were sent to the NAACP, attorney Deborah Brady-Davis and some African-American campus leaders. Brady-Davis is now Arnold’s attorney and is attorney of record on the lawsuits.
Some of the signers, when questioned by The Sun, confirmed that Arnold asked them to sign a blank page and did not show them the actual letter. Arnold has not responded to numerous phone calls seeking her response. Prior to her suspension, Arnold had denied writing the letter.
“A number of us who are African-American who are employees (or perceived to be African heritage) of the Southwestern Community College District are constantly subjected to institutional racism, differential treatment, harassment and a hostile work environment on a daily basis while in performance of our jobs,” read a passage from the letter.
After the letter was published Jan. 20 on The Sun’s affiliated website, theswcsun.com, then President Dr. Melinda Nish wrote a letter to the newspaper published Feb. 14, 2015 insisting that the complaints were old and had already been investigated.
“We want to assure our campus community that every allegation—three of which are three to six years old—has been fully investigated and appropriate action has been taken,” wrote Nish.
Later in her letter she wrote that one allegation was “never reported to Human Resources or to Campus Police, but was immediately investigated when Human Resources received the recent letter.” Though mostly accurate, Nish’s Feb. 14 letter was criticized by members of the governing board and swaths of the campus community as tone deaf or insensitive.
In the following issue of The Sun, published March 17, Harris wrote that he disagreed with statements made in the January custodian’s letter and that, in his opinion, African-Americans were by and large well treated at the college.
“As an African-American male and having worked at SWC for the past 15 years, I can honestly tell you that I (personally) have never witnessed any type of racial discrimination at this institution,” Harris wrote.
Harris predicted his letter would “prompt some to call me an ‘Uncle Tom’ or even a ‘Sell Out.’” He was correct. His letter angered some African-Americans on campus. Lugo and other college employees reported that they heard Arnold and Professor of Commercial Music James Henry, an African-American, engage in a loud and heated discussion about Harris and his letter in Arnold’s office. Though the door was closed, Lugo and others present said they could clearly hear Arnold and Henry use disparaging and racist language. Lugo said she heard Henry refer to Harris as “a house nigger” and making reference to Uncle Tom.
“Here we are, an African-American dean and African-American faculty talking about another African-American colleague with those types of words,” Lugo said. “It was disturbing.”
Arnold, prior to her retirement, denied the conversation took place. Henry declined to comment on the record. Arnold’s lawsuit said that neither she nor Henry said anything threatening or inappropriate regarding Harris. Her complaint also said Lugo misconstrued the conversation. Lugo stood by her testimony.
One day after the incident in Arnold’s office, Harris received a death threat through the U.S. mail at his home. Rife with graphic and racist language, the letter warned Harris that “your day is coming nigger and we’re taking care of business on your ass.” It also warned “watch your back and get ready.”
College officials put Arnold and Blankenship on administrative leave after Harris turned the letter over to college officials. Outside investigators were brought in, though college officials would neither confirm nor deny that it was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI officials would not comment on the case.
Shortly after she was placed on leave, Arnold insisted that she had not written any of the letters. She said she did not know why she had been suspended and had her office computer removed. SWC human resources personnel, with the assistance of outside investigators, spent weeks interviewing Arts and Communication personnel
and other college employees. Some employees said they were interviewed several times, one claimed to have been questioned for a total of 17 hours.
Blankenship was reinstated about a month later and his computer was returned. Arnold was not allowed back and retired at the end of the academic year. At the time she denied any wrongdoing and said she was disciplined because she was African-American. SWC custodial staff was sent to seminars and workshops hosted by the Staff Development Department to share their experiences and feelings about racial conditions on campus. Faculty and staff were also encouraged to attend staff development offerings by outside speakers with expertise in race relations.
Harris said he honored a request by investigators not to release the letter while the case was under investigation. After it was deemed a closed case, Harris said, he was able to disclose the content of the letter and express his anguish.
“I want folks to know how I felt,” he said. “When I got that in the mail, it was unbelievable.”
Blankenship’s court complaint states that he denies writing the hate letter.
“The implication from Mr. Harris and others at Southwestern College was that Plaintiff (Blankenship) wrote the alleged threatening letter to Andre Harris,” reads the lawsuit. “Plaintiff denies having written any such letter.”
Harris did not mention Blankenship’s name during a recent interview with The Sun. He said he does not know who wrote the death threat letter, but suspects it was an African-American who works at the college.
“It had some language that made me believe it was (a person) of African-American descent with the terminology and the words being written,” Harris said. “Being an African-American, those words would only come from an African-American.”
“Some of the wording in the letter also led us to believe that it had to have been an employee,” she said. “It wasn’t somebody from off campus. You could only know those things if you worked here.”
Two custodians who signed the Jan. 19 letter said the NAACP is involved. NAACP President Dr. Andre Branch said he would put The Sun in contact with his legal team. The legal team did not respond to numerous emails before deadline.
Blankenship continues to work at SWC. He refused comment for this story. Arnold has not returned three calls to her cell phone. SWC President Dr. Kindred Murillo, who assumed her new position Feb. 1, said she has not seen the lawsuits and said they have not been sent to the college.
“I’ve heard the allegations,” she said, “but until I have all the facts, I don’t feel comfortable making comments.”
Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that the death threat to Andre Harris was sent to his home, rather than his workplace.