Scars remain at WSU despite official's resignation

RICHLAND -- Discrimination complaints, resignations and a lawsuit during the past year have plagued an office that is critical for students attending Washington State University Tri-Cities.

The troubles rippled out from one man -- Jaime Contreras, who effective April 30, resigned from his position as director of student affairs. At the time, WSU gave no reason for his departure.

The office he headed is ground zero for building relationships between the more than 1,500 students and the university.

From recruiting to graduation and from financial aid to advising, the 17 people working in student affairs handle it all.

Contreras was paid about $75,000 a year to manage that staff and recruit a more ethnically diverse student body.

But court files and university documents totaling almost 150 pages detail an array of claims that Contreras created a hostile environment for both staff and students, leading to several civil rights complaints late last year.

Finally, a March 2011 report by investigators brought in from WSU's Pullman campus chronicled incidents of racial discrimination, sexual harassment and slander by Contreras.

He resigned shortly after the report was completed.

Contreras responded to the Herald's requests for a comment with a written statement: "Things have been said about me that are not true. Nonetheless, ... there are certain battles in life you choose not to fight."

His resignation followed several others that started in December. All stemmed from a series of events that began last summer.

"As soon as we had a formal complaint (in December), we took all actions permitted according to university policies," Vicky Carwein, chancellor of WSU Tri-Cities, said in an interview last week.

But documents the Herald obtained through the Open Public Records Act indicate problems were not addressed for almost two years by the time a student filed the first written complaint.

Contreras came to the Tri-Cities in June 2008 and took over the student affairs job after working as admissions director at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande for 18 months. He previously had worked at a number of other colleges, with most jobs lasting from three months to a couple of years, according to his online resume.

Within a few months of starting at WSU, he used inappropriate language toward people working under him, according to the March report from the university investigators.

The report cites no exact dates, and employees interviewed by the Herald couldn't remember precise dates either, but it contains blunt statements about what investigators were told:

* Contreras referred to then-student body President Zixu Ha as a "stupid Chinaman."

* Contreras used the name "Kunta Kinte" to describe a black subordinate. The name is taken from the novel Roots. The character with that name is a slave.

Dallas Barnes, a WSU employee who in court documents claimed to be the only black administrator on the Tri-City campus, last year sued the university alleging discrimination by his superiors, including Contreras.

* Contreras called an employee of Japanese descent "Tokyo Rose" and "Nip," both derogatory terms used during World War II for Japanese or Japanese Americans.

* Another staff member, who is of Irish descent, had to listen to Contreras' stereotyping the Irish as "dumb drunks."

The report and witness interviews by the Herald indicate these were not isolated incidents.

"It was daily," Anna Mitson, the Japanese-American employee, told the Herald. "That was his means of communication."

Contreras also seemed to play employees in the student affairs office against each other and improperly shared confidential information, according to subsequent complaints.

WSU Vice Chancellor Dick Pratt told the Herald nobody complained directly to him about Contreras' conduct.

"If that had been going on for a while, nobody said anything about it," Pratt said. "Or they didn't say it to anybody who was in a position to actually do anything about it. If they had, we would have acted at a much earlier stage."

Two employees told investigators they talked to their human resource department about the office environment, but nothing happened.

"Talked to (them) until blue in the face," an investigator's notes quoted one witness.

Karina Barajas, WSU Tri-Cities' human resource analyst, said any such complaints would have been sent on to the Office of Equal Opportunity, the university's civil rights investigators in Pullman.

But that office knew nothing of Contreras' transgressions until three of his subordinates and a student filed complaints against him in October, November and December 2010, according to its director, Raul Sanchez.

Those files show Contreras' staff began to feel more pressure last summer as a result of incidents involving Contreras' daughter, Amber, who was then a senator in the student government.

Mitson, the administration's adviser to the student government association, said she heard reports last August that Amber Contreras had "acted inappropriately" during a student orientation event.

As part of her work as an adviser, Mitson pulled Amber aside one day, had a brief talk with her about the incident and figured the matter was settled.

Not long after, Jaime Contreras spread rumors that Mitson was having an extramarital affair with a subordinate, according to the report.

Contreras denied spreading such a rumor, writing in a January email to investigators, "where this rumor is coming from, I do not know."

But investigators "confirmed that (Contreras) talked to Vice Chancellor Pratt about Ms. Mitson's alleged inappropriate relationship with the subordinate employee," the March report stated.

Contreras also made the same allegations to human resources, the report said.

Also in late summer, a fellow student senator questioned Amber Contreras about how much student senate business she had been sharing with her father.

"It was always, 'My dad suggests this,' or 'My dad thinks this would be really good to do,' " Lynn Collins told the Herald.

After a Oct. 5 senate meeting, Amber Contreras confronted Collins in a common area on campus. Witnesses said Contreras became "animated."

Later that day, she resigned from her student senate position. Jaime Contreras told Mitson the next day that his daughter had been bullied by Collins and asked Mitson to intervene.

Mitson said she told Contreras that this was the kind of conflict senators should work out with each other.

Then on Oct. 7, Contreras took away a program that Mitson supervised, according to the civil rights investigation.

After successfully recommending a promotion and pay raise for Mitson in August, Contreras in October started criticizing her work around the office and met with Barajas in human resources to try to eliminate Mitson's position entirely, the investigators found.

He also threatened Collins with a student conduct investigation and sent her several emails summoning her to his office. Collins and Mitson, in separate interviews, said he had begun calling Collins "the bitch" openly around the student affairs office.

Staff avoided being seen with Collins, which made her work as a student senator almost impossible, she told the Herald.

On Oct. 23, she sent a letter to John Fraire, vice president of WSU statewide. In it, she described Contreras' behavior. That prompted Fraire to contact Pratt and the Tri-Cities' human resources office.

"(Contreras') own writings demonstrate that his relationships with his subordinates became increasingly strained after the incidents concerning his daughter," investigators later concluded.

"Get your Chinese ass in here," he hollered at Mitson in December, according to the investigation. That incident occurred in the international adviser's office, which is frequented by Asian students.

Amanda O'Leary, an adviser in the student affairs office, went to see human resources "regarding work climate concerns," an email dated Nov. 19 reads.

She went back there on Dec. 1 to report Contreras was trying to turn workers against one another with rumors.

On Dec. 2, investigators in Pullman received their first written complaint from the Tri-Cities. It was made anonymously, alleging "Contreras makes/has made inappropriate racial and gender remarks about students and staff. Hostile work environment."

Investigators later found Christina Davis, an academic coordinator, had sent the complaint.

On Dec. 14, two more complaints came in -- one from O'Leary, one from Mitson.

O'Leary told investigators she cried before going to work because of the stress. She's a "member of armed forces, and (it) is not as stressful as working for student affairs WSU Tri-Cities," the investigator's notes read.

O'Leary is at boot camp on military leave from her WSU duties.

The notes on her complaint say, "People going to Vice Chancellor Dick Pratt and he has done nothing."

Pratt recently told the Herald he couldn't do anything formal in December because the case still was under investigation. "There's an orderly process for taking action," he said.

Mitson's complaint noted the racial remarks and also mentioned the allegations of an affair, which constitute sexual harassment under university rules.

In early January, Contreras made a countercomplaint against O'Leary, Mitson and Davis. He accused them of conspiring against him and against the WSU administration.

Soon after the Christmas break in January, the Pullman investigators came to the Tri-Cities and interviewed everyone involved.

Their report, issued March 7, concluded Contreras was "not credible."

Contreras used "demeaning, derogatory racial or ethnic terms numerous times in the workplace," the investigators reported.

They also reported that five of his subordinates alleged he "used sexual language in reference to himself, staff or students."

Contreras violated policies prohibiting discrimination and sexual harassment, and "corrective action" was needed, investigators concluded.

Shortly before their report came out, Mitson resigned.

"The damage was done," she said. "I didn't do anything wrong, but I felt no support (from Tri-City administrators) or that they were even taking it seriously. The stress was horrendous."

Brent Rust, a two-term student senator, told the Herald that Mitson's departure was "seriously damaging to students."

"Students as a whole lost a champion when Anna left," Rust said. "She encouraged us and guided us."

Mitson also increased student involvement on campus and in the community, he said.

Contreras resigned in March, before WSU could decide whether to discipline him.

The Herald requested WSU records of any previous disciplinary actions against Contreras, but WSU officials in Pullman said there was nothing on file. That's because only the most stringent measures are considered part of a disciplinary record, Pratt said. No serious measures had been taken by the time Contreras resigned, he said.

"Fairness works on both sides of the street," Pratt said. "(Employees) have to have a chance to respond to allegations. It's a due process issue."

Since Contreras' resignation, the fallout has continued.

On May 20, Davis also resigned.

"The morale in our office was and is quite low," she told the Herald. "It's stressful and exhausting. This really affected our unit."

Chancellor Carwein said it's now time to move forward under the new director of student affairs.

"I know that unit has hard work ahead of it," she said. "We're looking to rebuild a climate here that I believe existed before."

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com