San Diego County’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is investigating complaints of alleged racial discrimination at Southwestern College, according to NAACP President Dr. Andre Jose Branch.
“The NAACP has received numerous complaints of alleged discrimination from employees at Southwestern College,” Branch said. “Our Legal Redress Committee is investigating these complaints.”
Branch declined to go into specifics about the accusations. Three SWC custodians said the NAACP was investigating the college on their behalf, but Branch would not confirm that. The local NAACP was copied on a letter signed by four SWC custodians and an IT employee in January 2015 that ignited a series of ongoing controversies on campus. Signers of the letter said it was written by former dean Dr. Donna Arnold, who has denied authorship. Arnold retired in June 2015, but claimed in a lawsuit she filed in December 2016 that she was forced out. Arnold’s lawsuit is pending and college officials have declined comment.
Signers of the 2015 letter were custodians Roderick Curry, Thaao Streeter, Eric Matos and Mark Gutierrez, and PC Systems Technician Johnny Blankenship. Matos has since retired. Blankenship was temporarily suspended with pay in April 2015 along with Arnold when former classified union president Andre Harris received a death threat at his office at the National City satellite campus. Blankenship was reinstated, but Arnold never returned to work. She denied writing the death threat or sending it to Harris.
Blankenship filed an employment discrimination suit against the college in February. He declined comment.
Curry, Streeter and Gutierrez met with reporters from The Sun several times in February and made a series of charges against the college and their supervisor, Director of Facilities Charlotte Zolezzi. The custodians claimed Zolezzi was harassing them at work by following them around during their night shifts, blackmailing them with photographs of them sleeping or engaging in illegal activities during work hours, spying on them and allowing them to be insulted and harassed by their direct supervisor.
Zolezzi said the charges were untrue and that she was holding them accountable to perform their work. Harris and former classified union vice president Silvia Lugo said they initially took the custodian’s charges at face value and investigated, but found no evidence that Zolezzi was treating them unfairly.
“Charlotte is just doing her job, which is to make sure the custodians do their jobs,” said Lugo. “They don’t like the fact that she is holding them accountable. They’ve gotten away with a lot of crap for years, but Charlotte is trying to make them fly straight.”
Zolezzi acknowledged that she has increased supervision of the custodians because some were not productive, and many college classrooms and offices have not been adequately maintained.
“I’ve offered in good faith to help them find new jobs if they are unhappy here,” she said. “No one should have to work in a job they don’t like. I’ve offered to help them retrain as plumbers or other professions if they feel they need a change. I don’t want anyone who works in my department to be unhappy, but if they choose to work here they need to work. We are counting on them to keep our campus clean for our students and our faculty.”
Curry, Streeter and Gutierrez complained to students at The Sun and their advisor that the story about Arnold’s lawsuit in the March 6 issue did not include their complaints against Zolezzi and the college. Gutierrez said he was very angry about the story and threatened a journalism student during a profanity-laden 11-minute phone call. Professor of Journalism Dr. Max Branscomb filed a complaint with William Kinney, acting dean of the School of Arts, Communication and Social Science against Gutierrez, whom he said “crossed a line he should not have crossed.”
College officials hired an independent investigator to look into the episode. The investigation is ongoing. Curry and Streeter later apologized to Branscomb and the staff of The Sun for Gutierrez’s outburst, and insisted he did not speak for them.
Prior to Gutierrez’s phone call, he, Curry and Streeter met with staff from The Sun to outline a series of grievances. They said they were harassed and insulted by their former supervisor, Michael Cagle. They called the campus police on Cagle on May 4, 2016 and Officer Adam Cato responded. Cato said the disagreement between Cagle and the custodians was not a criminal issue and did not require police involvement. They were formally reprimanded by Zolezzi.
Cagle was terminated by the district in December 2016. The custodians said he was fired for sexual harassment. Zolezzi acknowledged that Cagle was relieved of his duties and dismissed, but not for sexual harassment. She said the labor contract between CSEA and the college prevents her from providing any additional details.
The custodians said Cagle was Harris’s cousin and that Harris had used his influence as CSEA president to get him hired. Harris said he is not related to Cagle and never met him until after Cagle began work at the college. He denied participating in Cagle’s hiring.
“I guess because Cagle is black and I’m black they must have assumed we’re related,” said Harris. “This is just another crazy tale from those guys.”
Curry, Streeter and Gutierrez said they felt “sold out” by their union.
“Andre just abandoned us,” said one. “He didn’t care about us anymore.”
The custodians said Harris and Lugo betrayed them by repeatedly ignoring their complaints and taking Zolezzi’s side. One accused Lugo of cheering on Zolezzi with exclamations of “You go get ‘em, girl!” as Zolezzi “yelled and cursed” at the custodians.
Lugo and Zolezzi said the charge is untrue.
Custodians also claimed that they had been directed by administration to search through documents at The Sun left on desks and put in the trash to preview stories and find evidence of unflattering articles in development. College administrators denied the allegation and the custodians could provide no specific examples of espionage in The Sun newsroom after hours. Branscomb said he saw no evidence that college officials were spying on the student newspaper. Custodians walked back the accusation in subsequent interviews.
Lugo said contradictions of that nature were increasingly common.
“It became clear to the investigators and to us that the custodians were manipulating this investigation and were lying half the time,” she said. “They have alienated themselves by making up some of these things or changing facts to benefit them. It’s disappointing that grown adults have to go to this degree of manipulation and lying to get out of working.”
“Do your jobs, man,” he said. “And I quote, just do your jobs.”
A college employee or multiple employees contacted the NAACP in February 2016 when some African-American employees interpreted a comment by a new director as insinuating that there were too many African-Americans on a new Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee. Some college employees said former president Dr. Melinda Nish repeated the comment at a management team meeting a few days later. Nish denied that she repeated the comment. She resigned in June 2016.
Nish was defended by most parties in the controversy, some of whom said she was speaking from a strictly clinical, mathematical perspective and meant no racial slight. The controversy has dogged Nish, however, as she has applied for presidencies at other colleges in California and Oregon. Articles in newspapers in Portland, Santa Barbara, Long Beach and Orange County have referenced articles and newscasts about Nish and the alleged comment.
The NAACP’s Branch would not say whether or not his organization’s investigation was related to the EDI episode. He did not say when he expected the investigation to wrap up or if there would be a report.