Trio of custodians file racial discrimination law suit

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A third lawsuit centered on racial discrimination and retaliation has been filed against Southwestern College within 11 months. This time custodians Thaao Streeter, Mark Gutierrez and Roderick Curry have filed a joint suit claiming systemic racial discrimination that began in 2009. The suit alleges SWC did not adequately train employees to prevent racism and retaliation.

Former dean Dr. Donna Arnold and PC technician Johnny Blankenship have also filed separate discrimination suits.

“Defendants (SWC) committed these acts alleged herein maliciously, fraudulently, and oppressively,” the custodians’ suit alleges. “They also acted with the wrongful intention of hurting Plaintiffs, and acted with an improper and evil motive amounting to malice or despicable conduct.”

College officials declined to comment specifically about the custodians’ suit, but several insisted that each allegation has been investigated, according to college officials.

Streeter, Gutierrez and Curry said they were not satisfied with the results of the investigations and that racist behavior has stretched over the course of five SWC presidents and acting presidents.

Their complaints were initially made public in 2015 when a letter addressed to Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber was given by Arnold to The Sun on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Also copied on the letter were the San Diego NAACP, U.S. Office of Civil Rights, San Diego’s Office of the EEOC, SWC’s Governing Board, SWC Professor Stan James, Arnold and Arnold’s attorney Deborah Brady-Davis. It stated that “a number of us (employees)” had experienced racial discrimination on campus. Signers of the letter were Blankenship, Streeter, Gutierrez, Curry and Eric Matos, who has since retired. Streeter, Gutierrez and Curry said they had tried numerous avenues to voice their complaints prior to signing the letter.

“A number of us who are African-American (or perceived to be African heritage), who are employees 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 2015 letter.

Director of Facilities Charlotte Zolezzi supervised custodians from January 2016 until early spring 2017. Streeter, Gutierrez and Curry said in interviews with The Sun in January and in their suit that Zolezzi harassed them and conspired to get them fired. Zolezzi said this was untrue and that she was just trying to get them to work. The custodians allege in the suit that she blackmailed them with incriminating pictures and subjected them to retaliatory work evaluations. Zolezzi also denied that.

“You just don’t want to be watchdogging someone all of the time,” she said. “You want to turn them loose, they’re adults. You just want them to complete their job.”

Zolezzi said she was relieved of her supervision of the custodians following recent litigation. Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs Tim Flood has been temporary supervisor of all custodians since June 2.

Former SWC President Dr. Melinda Nish wrote a letter to the newspaper published Feb. 14, 2015 in response to the January 2015 letter signed to the custodians and Blankenship. Nish wrote that the employees’ 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.”

Former CSEA Vice President Silvia Lugo said the custodians told investigators that the letter was written by Arnold. Lugo said Arnold never showed the letter to the custodians or Blankenship and that they were directed to sign a blank second page that was later attached to the letter.

Some of the signers, when questioned by The Sun in January 2017, 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 and subsequent retirement, Arnold had denied writing the letter.

Lugo said there were contradictions in the custodians’ testimonies throughout the investigation that brought their credibility into question.

“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.”

Former CSEA President Andre Harris agreed and said the custodians complained constantly and did not put enough effort into their responsibilities.

“Do your jobs, man,” he said. “And I quote, just do your jobs.”

Arnold and Blankenship filed separate lawsuits within the last 11 months over backlash from the original January 2015 letter. In the March 17, 2015 issue of The Sun, Harris wrote that he disagreed with statements made in the January 2015 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.

“What I wrote in my letter to Weber was that it was a management issue, not a racial issue,” Harris said to The Sun in February. “That this was poor management and allowing grown men to act like children. Then they came after me.”

Harris received a death threat in the mail after his letter appeared in The Sun. Blankenship and Arnold had their computers confiscated soon after. Blankenship’s was returned, but Arnold suddenly retired after the incident. The author of the death threat has not been identified. Some college employees said the FBI was called to investigate, but FBI spokespersons would neither confirm nor deny that. Arnold, before her suspension, denied writing the death threat. Henry has refused requests for an interview.

NAACP San Diego Branch President Dr. Andre Branch said his organization was investigating SWC after numerous allegations of racial discrimination from employees in March 2017. Branch did not reply to numerous requests for an interview and has yet to provide any information from the NAACP investigation.

SWC President Dr. Kindred Murillo, who started working at the college in February 2017, would not comment on the three lawsuits that stemmed from the letter to Assemblymember Weber. She did, however, address racism, retaliation and discrimination in a recent letter to the college community. Murillo said these behaviors are problems she and administration “must address” by creating a task force to prevent similar situations from happening in the future. “The Advisory Task Force to the President on Inclusion and Race Relations” will convene in December.

“We know we have some issues with racist statements, micro-aggressions, lack of tolerance and diversity,” Murillo said. “This problem is on us. This is our problem and we must address it.”

Brady-Davis was the attorney for Arnold and Blankenship as well as the attorney of record on their lawsuits before she died of cancer earlier this year. Streeter, Curry and Gutierrez have asked for a jury trial. Blankenship and Arnold have made similar requests.

Streeter, Curry, and Gutierrez have a hearing scheduled for Jan. 23, 2018.

Original letter signed by five employees claiming institutional racism.

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