Former student sues WSU over handling of racist incident in 2015 at Phi Delta Theta fraternity
A former student is suing Washington State University over its handling of a 2015 incident that sparked marches protesting racism on the Pullman campus.
Dominique Stewart, who is black, says she was humiliated on the night of Feb. 21, 2015, while she was waiting for a friend in front of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. During a party that produced multiple witnesses, a white member of the fraternity allegedly shouted racist and misogynistic slurs before slamming a door in Stewart’s face.
Afterward, fraternity members were seen laughing on the balcony. Stewart, who was 18 and a freshman at the time, told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News: “After the guy said those words to me and slammed the door in my face, a member of the fraternity opened the door and said, ‘He’s just intoxicated, he didn’t mean it,’ and shut the door again in my face. We’ve never heard any apologies other than ‘He was drunk,’ which isn’t an answer, not an acceptable justification and it just brings up bigger issues.”
Stewart’s lawsuit was filed last month in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington. It claims that school officials, including late WSU President Elson Floyd, engaged in “victim-blaming” and didn’t do enough to protect Stewart from a “viral upstir of racism” that followed the fraternity incident.
Anne Bremner, the Seattle attorney representing Stewart, said her client graduated from WSU last year and has landed a job in New York, despite years of emotional distress.
“She’s really come around and done extremely well, but she’s also someone who sticks to her convictions, and that’s why we’re in this case,” Bremner said. “We’ve tried to work this out with the university, but that was unsuccessful.”
WSU’s student-conduct office did open an investigation into the fraternity incident, and the student who lobbed the verbal attack was expelled.
In an email, Phil Weiler, WSU’s vice president for marketing and communications, defended the school’s actions but said he could not discuss specifics of the case because of a federal student-confidentiality law.
“In addition to expelling the student who violated our code of conduct, we also provided immediate resources to the student who brought these concerns to our attention,” Weiler wrote. “We believe the legal process will show that the actions taken map to our values of supporting all students in their educational pursuits, regardless of their ethnicity, race, sexual identity, religion or background.”
Stewart’s troubles did not end after the incident at Phi Delta Theta, according to the lawsuit. While some students marched and created a campaign called Wake Up WSU to decry racism on campus, others retaliated against Stewart for reporting what had happened at the fraternity. According to the lawsuit, she “was vilified and threatened by WSU students and members of the public, behind the anonymity of social media.”
About a week after the fraternity incident, Stewart and her mother, Jameila Stewart, met with Melynda Huskey, who was WSU’s dean of students, to discuss the hostility they said Stewart was facing. According to the lawsuit, Huskey suggested that Stewart move to a different dorm, and Jameila Stewart asked if someone from the school could chaperone her daughter to classes, but Huskey said it couldn’t be done.
Jameila Stewart left the meeting disappointed and took her daughter home to Seattle. Dominique returned to Pullman eight days later, but continued falling behind in her studies because of “a significant degree of stress being back on campus,” according to the lawsuit.
That same week, Floyd publicly apologized to a group of about 100 students who had gathered to press school officials to hasten the ongoing student-conduct investigation, according to the Daily News. “We offer as an institution our sincerest apologies for your having to encounter that,” Floyd said at the time. “It’s unfortunate and we regret that that circumstance occurred.”
On March 29, 2015, some five weeks after the fraternity incident, Stewart was harassed again. According to the lawsuit, she was walking through Greek Row when a car full of college-age white men passed by, and one of the passengers threw a piece of chicken at her, shouting racist and misogynistic slurs.
Stewart believed the young men were connected to Phi Delta Theta, and she reported the incident to police, as Huskey had instructed. But, according to the lawsuit, the dispatcher said police could not respond and asked Stewart to get the car’s license plate number and “call back.”
On April 9, 2015, WSU issued a report that determined Phi Delta Theta had violated the school’s antidiscrimination policy, according to the lawsuit. But, the suit states, “no other WSU fraternity members or students actively harassing (Stewart) through social media in the aftermath were investigated.”
At the end of that month, Stewart and some friends were invited to discuss racism with Floyd and Jeff Guillory, WSU’s director of diversity education. The lawsuit claims that Floyd – the university’s first black president – downplayed the seriousness of the fraternity incident by comparing it to physical and sexual assaults.
“The ‘conversation’ 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,” the lawsuit states.
The suit also claims that Floyd sought to absolve WSU of responsibility for the incident, saying he had tried unsuccessfully to “get the jurisdiction changed” so that campus police could monitor off-campus fraternities.
Bremner said her client used her cellphone to record the meeting with Floyd, explaining a long quotation in the legal complaint that is attributed to him. Under Washington law, Bremner noted, “you can record a conversation when there is not an expectation of privacy.”
Floyd, who was 59, died of colon cancer in June 2015, less than two months after that meeting.
The lawsuit claims WSU acted negligently and violated federal laws, including Title IX and the Clery Act, which requires universities to collect and publish data on hate crimes and violent crimes that happen on and around their properties. Bremner said WSU failed to count the incident at Phi Delta Theta as a hate crime.
In his email, Weiler pointed to a page on the university’s website that features Clery Act reports.
The lawsuit concludes, “The university has failed to make students safe, has failed to properly investigate assaults and incidents of harassment and has not assisted with the emotional trauma suffered by victims.”
Phi Delta Theta, like other fraternities, has long grappled with allegations of hazing, misogyny and over-the-top racism. In a similar incident in 2015, the Phi Delta Theta chapter at the Georgia Institute of Technology was sanctioned after members were found to have shouted racist insults at a female black student from a window, the school’s student newspaper reported.
WSU’s Phi Delta Theta chapter was suspended two years ago after allegations of drugging and rape surfaced after a party, and a freshman nearly died of alcohol poisoning after older members orchestrated a drinking competition among the different pledge classes. The fraternity’s chapter at Louisiana State University has come under scrutiny since an 18-year-old freshman, Max Gruver, died after a night of heavy drinking in September.
The Pullman campus seemed to experience an uptick in racially charged incidents since the 2016 presidential campaigns, and WSU officials have responded with new initiatives aimed at promoting student diversity.
“Like all institutions of higher education learning today, WSU recognizes we have more work to do as part of our continuing efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion across campuses,” Weiler wrote. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to this important and ongoing work.”