In the last two years, more than a dozen former and current employees of Harris-Stowe State University have sued the institution, alleging a range of workplace abuses including ageism, sexual harassment and racial discrimination against white employees.
The allegations trace a familiar pattern. Last year, the state of Missouri paid $5.5 million
to a former Harris-Stowe professor who alleged race and age discrimination; that payment came two years after a jury agreed that the administration was trying systematically purge its ranks of white professors. In a separate 2015 discrimination lawsuit, a jury returned a $2.5 million judgement in favor of a professor who had alleged that her contract wasn't renewed because of her ethnicity, though an appeals court recently ordered that case be re-tried
However, those earlier lawsuits were aimed at Harris-Stowe administrators who subsequently departed their posts. The recent crop of litigation targets the very administration that was supposed to turn things around.
"What we're seeing here is a case of systemic discrimination that's being subsidized by state money," says attorney Thomas SanFilippo, who, along with attorney Jeremy Hollingshead, is representing fifteen separate clients alleging discrimination by the historically black university in Midtown.
"The administration certainly doesn't care to change their policies," SanFilippo adds, "presumably because they don't see it as their money."
The slate of plaintiffs include current and former faculty members who allege the administration consistently awarded promotions and raises to younger African American men while passing over more qualified employees due to their age. Others accused the school of specifically discriminating against non-black, non-male employees.
Some of the plaintiffs were longtime employees who had given more than a decade to the institution before they say they were terminated or pressured to retire. Clarice Poindexter, who filed a discrimination lawsuit against Harris-Stowe last month, spent 27 years working there and even earned her bachelor’s degree in 2003.
But two of the plaintiffs are former students, and in those cases the allegations veer into far different territory. One student, Brittany Jackson, claims Dean of Student Success Emmanuel Lalande groped her buttocks during a private meeting, during which he offered to "help" her in return for sexual favors.
As the RFT reported in 2016
, Jackson had been expelled following a convoluted series of events involving a gym bag containing weed that the university said belonged to her. After Jackson was charged with felony drug possession, a St. Louis police officer investigated and determined that a Harris-Stowe staffer had lied during interviews to hide the indirect involvement of the school's basketball coach. The charges against Jackson were eventually dropped. Lalande, in a statement to RFT
at the time, called Jackson a known drug-dealer and denied that he'd groped her or offered "help" in exchange for sex.
A second lawsuit by a former student, filed earlier this year, also concerns alleged sexual assault. According to the filing, the student was befriended by a "campus police officer" who offered to help him prepare for the military. However, the lawsuit alleges, the campus cop was in fact "grooming him in anticipation of sexually assaulting him."
In 2015, the male student (whom RFT
is not naming) alleges the campus officer lured him to an apartment. There, the officer allegedly held the gun to his head, repeatedly referred to him as a "little nigger," and subsequently ordered him to perform oral sex. The student later reported the rape to Harris-Stowe, but the lawsuit alleges that it was recorded in the school's Clery log — a federally mandated log of campus crimes — as "sexual harassment."
In June 2016, the student filed a police report against the campus police officer. The report notes that Harris-Stowe verified that the officer was "formally an employee," but that's where the investigation apparently ended. RFT
is not naming the former campus officer because he has not been charged with a crime.
The former student's lawsuit names both the officer and Harris-Stowe as defendants, with the officer accused of targeting the student based on race and gender, and the university blamed for its failure to take "prompt and effective remedial action" against the officer, and instead taking actions that allegedly "condoned, ratified, and/or authorized the discrimination and harassment."
We've reached out Harris-Stowe for comment on the recent spate of lawsuits and have yet to hear back. In the past, the university has declined to comment on pending litigation.
Update 2:00 p.m.:
Here's the response from Harris-Stowe spokeswoman Belinda Williams:
The university does not comment on pending litigation, however Harris-Stowe State University vehemently denies these baseless allegations and looks forward to being vindicated in court.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com