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Shakespear Feyissa

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SPU cleared in discrimination case

A federal agency has cleared Seattle Pacific University of racial discrimination charges filed by a former student.A separate internal investigation, headed up by Provost Bruce Murphy, also concluded there was no racial discrimination.

Shakespear Feyissa, a senior at SPU last year, filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in April and with the university in May, alleging that the university had disciplined him more harshly than other students based on his race and national origin.

“The evidence does not support a finding that the student’s race, national origin and/or sex were the basis for the university’s actions,” said Gary Jackson, director of the Seattle division of the Office for Civil Rights in a July 24 letter to SPU.

The agency’s investigation spanned almost four months and included the review of written documents provided by the university and Feyissa, interviews of witnesses and analysis of 85 SPU student discipline records from five years.

“We were pleased with the findings,” said Steve Moore, vice president for Campus Life. “It confirmed what we knew to be the case.”

“Nothing is resolved,” Feyissa said in a phone interview Monday. “The Office of Civil Right’s finding doesn’t mean anything. SPU is still a school like the KKK, in my opinion.”

Feyissa, an immigrant from Ethiopia, was suspended in January after Seattle Police arrested him as a suspect in an alleged sexual assault incident. Five days after his arrest, Feyissa was released unconditionally from the King County Jail, and prosecutors never filed charges.

The university rejected two appeals to lift the suspension, citing not only his arrest but also “four previously reported incidents” and the need to “protect the university community.”

In letters to the university and interviews with The Falcon last spring, Feyissa contended that he was denied due process and a fair hearing by SPU. He and his lawyer, Tom Dalglish, also accused the university of unfairly escalating the terms of his suspension.

Feyissa’s complaints about a fair hearing and due process were never investigated by the agency or the university beyond their relation to racial discrimination, Murphy said.

Murphy called Feyissa’s discipline “progressive and fair” and said there is “sound reason to believe that Mr. Feyissa is a threat to persons on campus.”

“Mr. Feyissa was made aware of the school’s lifestyle expectations and standards, he was given warnings about his behaviors, and provided with resources and opportunities to help him succeed as a member of the community,” Murphy said. “He did not learn from these experiences and failed to follow the guidelines set out for him.”

Feyissa said he reapplied for admission in August but was denied. “They refused to give me any explanation why,” he said.

In an earlier interview, Moore said Feyissa had not applied for readmission.

The agency released their findings in a July 24 letter to the university President Phil Eaton. The agency concluded that “(b)ased on the findings of the investigation, OCR cannot conclude that the university failed to comply … with respect to the issue investigated.”

After reviewing 85 of SPU’s student discipline files from the last five years, the agency found that seven students were suspended more than one quarter. Of those, five were white, one was Asian and the other was Feyissa.

Additionally, the agency found that there were nine students who choose to withdraw voluntarily or withdrew at the university’s request. Of these, eight were white and one was a black male.

“[Feyissa] was unable to provide OCR specific examples or witnesses that could corroborate his allegation that non-minority and female students were treated in a manner different from him with respect to the suspension from the university and being denied access to university property,” the agency’s report said.

The agency determined that there was,” …no student record with a history of misconduct and discipline as extensive as [Feyissa’s].”

Murphy says the agency’s findings confirms and supports the findings of SPU’s own investigation.

The university launched an internal investigation after Feyissa officially filed a complaint of racial discrimination charging SPU’s Office of Campus Life and Safety and Security with 11 charges.

“The complaints were that the VP of Campus Life, other campus leaders and campus security officers discriminated against him on the basis of race — that they did not treat him as they did Caucasian students,” Murphy said.

“I don’t feel at all that Campus Life is at fault in what they did,” Murphy later added. “I don’t think there was discrimination.”

Moore, who upheld Feyissa’s suspension, called Feyissa’s treatment “absolutely a very fair process.” He added that the discipline process would not change as a result of this case.

“We attempted every step of the way to respond to any new information that was provided,” he said.

Murphy said the entire discipline process “was designed to allow him to return.”

“The sadness to me in all of this is that we’ve not been able to help Shakespear [Feyissa], and we’d like to think we’re the type of university that does. But we couldn’t,” he said.

Feyissa said he was unsure of his future plans. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “I really don’t know. I was confident I was going back to school.”

Source:  Falcon [1], Seattle, Washington.

Background:  James Trranto, Best of the Web [2]