Former employee testifies at WSU Tri-Cities discrimination trial

A former employee at Washington State University Tri-Cities testified Tuesday that she heard a school administrator refer to a black subordinate in racial terms during meetings.

Christina Davis-Steveson, who still is working on her degree at the Richland campus but no longer is employed there, said former Student Affairs Director Jaime Contreras referred to employee Dallas Barnes as Kunta Kinte, a slave character in the book Roots, on several occasions.

He also referred to Barnes as Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, "usually when he was mocking Dallas for acting like he was in charge," Davis-Steveson said.

Barnes and James R. Pratt, the school's interim chancellor, were among the witnesses to take the stand Tuesday in Barnes' discrimination lawsuit against the university. The trial is in Franklin County Superior Court in Pasco.

Davis-Steveson worked in the school's student affairs office with Barnes from June 2006 to June 2011. She said she had regular lunch meetings and other discussions with Contreras, who was one of her supervisors.

Davis-Steveson said she would laugh nervously sometimes when Contreras made racial comments about himself and about Barnes, who never was at the meetings.

"It was very uncomfortable, and I didn't know what else to do," she said.

Contreras, who is Hispanic, called himself terms like "bean burrito" and "beaner."

Contreras resigned in April 2011 following a report from WSU administrators on his use of "demeaning, derogatory racial or ethnic terms numerous times in the workplace,"

Davis-Steveson testified Contreras also told her to keep tabs on Barnes, including when he came in for work and who visited his office.

"He just said he wanted to catch him doing something wrong," she said.

Davis-Steveson, along with former employees Anna Mitson and Johan Curtiss, also are suing the university, and Contreras and his wife, Anna, for sexual and racial discrimination. That case is scheduled for trial in Benton Superior Court in February 2013.

WSU's attorney Paul Triesch, a Washington assistant attorney general, asked Barnes to read aloud for the jury some of his performance evaluations. His ratings declined in recent years under several administrators, and some duties were stripped after he received unsatisfactory reviews.

"Dallas has failed to provide the work level of someone with his experience and years working for WSU," Barnes read from one evaluation given by Contreras in 2008.

Barnes said he often protested his most recent evaluations and said he wasn't specifically told what he'd done wrong to merit low scores.

Pratt, who began working at the Richland campus in 2008 as vice chancellor of academic affairs, said he relied substantially on Contreras' evaluations to evaluate Barnes' ability, and added he didn't have much personal oversight of Barnes.

When Contreras resigned, a woman with fewer years of experience than Barnes was given the position.

"I didn't think he had the respect and trust of staff members," Pratt said.

Barnes still is listed as a student affairs officer but has since been moved to the school's Career Development Center.

The trial is expected to continue through the week.