Trio of Lawsuits for 2-Year College

August 29, 2006

Lately, Rio Hondo Community College has been serving Hispanic students, and getting served with lawsuits by Hispanic employees.

Rio Hondo faces three active lawsuits by current and former employees with Mexican ancestry. The California college's student body that is about two-thirds Hispanic.

Officials for the college, which has a Board of Trustees where every member has Hispanic ancestry, say that the discrimination allegations are simply complaints from employees who did not fly as high as they’d hoped at Rio Hondo. But the employees say that their problems relate to their ethnic pride and activism.

Susana De la Pena, a former assistant professor of English, claims that her enthusiasm for Mexican culture led to her contract not being renewed after the 2002-3 academic year, even though she won a teaching award from students on campus.

De la Pena said she thinks the trouble started when she was asked to remove Mexican artwork from her office. “I said, ‘is it because of the ethnic content?’” De la Pena recalled. “I think that was the kiss of death.” According to court documents, De la Pena claims that an administrator later told her that she was a “loud mouth” Chicana.

After that incident, De la Pena said, she started getting regular citations and scoldings from administrators saying that she was letting her class out early, that she didn’t return quickly enough a dolly used to move books, that she wasn’t collegial, or that she was making too many photocopies. The write-ups led De la Pena to receive some less than stellar evaluations.

Late in the year, De la Pena was told that her contract would not be renewed.

De la Pena filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation. A state-appointed arbitrator ruled in her favor, saying that the college was "arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory” in dismissing De la Pena. The arbitrator recommended that the college compensate De la Pena $75,300 plus interest in lost wages and renew her contract.

The recommendation, however, was just that: a recommendation, and the Board of Trustees rejected it. The lawsuit was then dismissed, and De la Pena has filed an appeal. “The district’s opinion was that she wasn’t good enough to get tenure,” said Bonifacio Bonny Garcia, counsel for the district. Garcia added that, despite the fact that De la Pena “makes a big deal about the arbitration,” he said, “academic judgement is not [the arbitrator’s] role.”

William D. Evans, De la Pena’s lawyer, is also representing the other two employees, one current and one former, in their discrimination suits. Evans said that he thinks the administration “seems to disfavor” people who get involved in a group called MEChA, which, if the spelled out fully, would translate in English to roughly “Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan.” The group, according to De la Pena, who was an adviser, holds Chicano pride events.

Another of Evans’s clients, Victoria Reyna Orozco, a former secretary in the college's nursing program, also helped out with MEChA. Evans said that Orozco helped schedule a campus visit by Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez. When Huerta came, according to De la Pena and court documents, Rose Marie Joyce, president of the college, tried to keep students from showing her an article in a campus publication that said that a Hispanic faculty member sent a mass e-mail calling MEChA un-American.

According to court records and Evans, Orozco started getting poor evaluations. According to the court documents, some of the criticism had to do with tardiness due to car troubles. Orozco claims that she was essentially forced into resignation. The Orozco case is pending.

Garcia said that the complaints from people suing the college claim that Rio Hondo administrators and trustees are “self-hating Mexicans,” but, he said, the allegations must be taken with loads of salt because they’re coming from “folks who haven’t achieved their employment objectives.”

The other pending case alleges ethnic and age and disability discrimination, among other types of bias, against Leroy Sanchez, a current instructor and counselor who started part-time teaching of philosophy courses.

Sanchez, who is Hispanic and 58-years-old, had started some philosophy courses at Rio Hondo, and made it known that he’d like a full time faculty position. When a full time position was eventually created, Sanchez was turned down in favor of a 35-year-old non-Hispanic teacher.

Evans said that the most important claim in Sanchez’s case might be the disability discrimination. Sanchez needs kidney dialysis twice a week, and according to court documents, Sanchez claims that, though he still performs all his teaching duties, he may have been skipped over for the teaching job because of the perception that his health problems would hold him back.

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