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Federal probe into discrimination expands at Montana State University

Lawyer: ‘It just felt like a complete lack of support for a minority student at the university’
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Posted at 10:46 AM, May 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-09 12:46:13-04

Montana State University faces two more investigations into federal civil rights abuses, including that the flagship failed to respond to discrimination reports based on sex, race and disability, and that it retaliated against a student who advocated on behalf of LGBTQ+ peers.

Since last fall, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has sent six total notices to MSU President Waded Cruzado about open investigations into allegations of discrimination. The investigations are pending.

MSU student Alexandra Lin filed a complaint about discrimination and urged other students to do the same after threats to their safety, reports the Daily Montanan. Her complaint is the basis of one recent notice, and Lin said this week MSU’s actions harmed her educational opportunities.

She said she’s pleased to see the Department of Education investigate allegations that MSU retaliated and inappropriately removed a no-contact order meant to protect her — MSU itself had argued it was necessary for her safety.

“I think it shows the Department of Education is taking this very seriously and acknowledges the harm that occurred, not only to me but to other students, through not following Title IX and other laws,” Lin said.

Title IX of the 1972 federal Education Amendments of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination and retaliation on the basis of sex at universities receiving federal money, such as MSU in Bozeman. The Office for Civil Rights enforces it.

Tracy Ellig, vice president of communications for MSU, said in an email Tuesday the Office for Civil Rights has opened investigations but “has not issued any findings indicating MSU’s response was lacking.”

“As with all previous OCR requests, MSU will provide the requested information and will continue to cooperate fully with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights,” Ellig said.

Earlier allegations in four separate notices since October 2023 include that MSU failed to appropriately respond to reports of discrimination against female students; against students and others of Jewish origin; against members of the Queer Straight Alliance; and against people with disabilities.

The federal probe expanded again with the two additional notices this week.

However, Lilia Tyrrell, a lawyer who represents Lin, said additional complaints are not unusual when the Office for Civil Rights begins hearing discrimination reports about a university and holds a listening session on a campus, as it did at MSU.

At the same time, Tyrrell said the Office for Civil Rights is highly selective in the claims it chooses to investigate, and she said a notice indicates to her there’s a possibility of merit.

“It is an incredible step to me that OCR is opening the investigation and looking into these allegations,” said Tyrrell, with Kasting, Kauffman, and Mersen in Bozeman. “The OCR receives thousands of complaints. They have to sift through them. And they really choose to spend their time and resources on claims they believe may have merit.”

Tyrrell said Lin’s goal is to make MSU safe for minority students. She said the investigation has the capacity to resolve concerns the university treats those who file reports as “troublemakers” rather than take their complaints seriously.

At least one earlier letter to MSU warned the university about retaliating against anyone who filed a discrimination complaint or participates in a related proceeding, and one of the new notices does as well. MSU is the state’s largest public university.

“Please be advised the University must not harass, coerce, intimidate, discriminate, or otherwise retaliate against an individual because that individual asserts a right or privilege under a law enforced by OCR or files a complaint, testifies, assists, or participates in a proceeding under a law enforced by OCR,” said the notice about Lin, dated May 6.

“If this happens, the individual may file a retaliation complaint with OCR.”

MSU provided the Daily Montanan copies of the recent notices and redacted them to protect privacy. However, Lin has identified herself as one of the victims and received a corresponding notice from the Office for Civil Rights about its investigation into her complaint.

The May 6 letter to MSU said the feds will determine whether the university failed to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment and race-based harassment last school year and whether MSU retaliated. Lin is part Taiwanese.

“Specifically, OCR will investigate whether the University: … Retaliated against Student A, after Student A engaged in advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ students, by discontinuing funding for University projects Student A is involved with,” said the letter in part.

The corresponding letter to Lin notes OCR will also investigate whether MSU retaliated by removing her eligibility for student government.

Additionally, the Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether MSU failed to respond to Lin’s request to reinstate a mutual no-contact order with another student. Tyrrell said she warned MSU in advance that lifting the order would have “significant repercussions” for Lin.

But the order was lifted, and as predicted, Lin received disturbing threats, including “death threats on her doorstep,” Tyrrell said. The other student had sued MSU, and lifting the order was part of a settlement.

In other words, Tyrrell said, in order to try to “make the lawsuit go away” and avoid legal fees and media attention, MSU sacrificed Lin’s safety. Lin, who was not party to the suit, temporarily withdrew from school and left the state.

“It just felt like a complete lack of support for a minority student at the university,” Tyrrell said.

Last school year, the Office for Civil Rights received more than 20 complaints with allegations that MSU discriminated against the Queer Straight Alliance after the club that supports LGBTQ+ students received threats, including a death threat.

MSU had argued the threats were “not credible threats of violence,” and an event that was the subject of the threat took place without incident.

The litany of complaints came about largely after Lin urged students who feared for their safety to file complaints directly with the federal agency given a lack of trust of internal processes at MSU.

Some students and faculty have described MSU President Cruzado’s leadership style on campus as “soft authoritarianism.” Cruzado has not publicly addressed the open investigations, and through her communications team, she has declined numerous requests for interviews with the Daily Montanan.

The second notice MSU received, dated May 7, said the Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether MSU discriminated against a former student on the basis of sex and on the basis of disability. OCR also enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act and other regulations that prohibit discrimination based on disability.

Both letters outline the way the investigations may conclude.

“During the OCR investigation, the allegations may be resolved in a variety of ways, including a voluntary written agreement in which the University agrees to take remedial actions that OCR determines fully resolve the allegation consistent with applicable legal standards,” said both of the letters.

“Where appropriate, the allegations may also be resolved through mediation facilitated by OCR. If a resolution of the complaint is not reached before OCR completes its investigation, OCR will make findings and a determination as to whether the University is in compliance with the applicable legal standards and, in the event non-compliance is found, OCR will propose that the University enter into a voluntary resolution agreement in which the University commits to take specific steps to comply with applicable laws and regulations.”

Tyrrell said the Office for Civil Rights can offer creative remedies it asks universities to undertake, such as training or new programs, in resolutions. She said the investigation has the opportunity to help change the way MSU manages threats to minority students.

“There’s never really harm done when somebody is shining light on questions of whether minority students are protected in their educational environment,” Tyrrell said. “So let’s shine the light and look.”