TOPEKA — A federal judge has ordered Emporia State University to pay $64,000 to a former employee who faced retaliation after reporting a racist slur in 2015.
Angelica Hale, 58, had argued for at least $500,000 to cover wages and benefits she would have earned if she had been allowed to stay at the university until she retired. She said she was disappointed in the judge’s decision and plans to file a motion to reconsider.
The ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree follows a five-year struggle by Angelica and her husband, Melvin, to have their complaints taken seriously. An event next month in Emporia will commemorate the couple’s march for justice.
The Hales have been jobless and homeless, sometimes living in their car, for much of the past four years. They currently are staying with an aunt in Las Vegas.
Melvin said “ESU is laughing today and probably partying” because of Crabtree’s ruling.
“They’re not going to think twice,” he said. “They’re going to laugh and say, ‘We had them.’ And they’re probably going to call us the N word and laugh like crazy.”
Gwen Larson, a spokeswoman for ESU, said the university was studying the judgment and exploring options.
“Emporia State is committed to creating a welcoming environment for all students, faculty and staff,” Larson said.
Crabtree last year ruled the university improperly punished Angelica under federal anti-discrimination law. In a separate case, a jury found the university was justified in canceling Melvin’s contract as an assistant professor.
Angelica was the administrative assistant to the dean of ESU’s School of Library and Information Management, and worked in an exclusive office where few had access. Someone wrote “niggaz” on a notebook in her office, and the couple immediately informed the dean. University officials initially refused to consider the incident to be significant, and campus police declined to investigate.
The couple complained publicly about the university, which led to an internal review by an assistant director of human resources that found no wrongdoing.
In public statements, the university’s attorney, Kevin Johnson, falsely said the slur had been written in a commons area and that it was a fluke the Hales had even learned about it. He asserted that hate crimes don’t exist under Kansas law.
Angelica quit in July 2015, citing a hostile work environment.
Crabtree determined Angelica was entitled to just nine months of wages, retirement benefits and tuition assistance, worth $48,312.03, plus $15,991.28 in interest. The judge said Angelica frequently changed jobs before arriving at ESU and would have been unlikely to stay after her husband’s contract expired in May 2016.
Angelica said the judge’s conclusion was sexist and offensive. The couple owned a house in Emporia, she said, and told the Associated Press in 2015 they intended to stay in the community to address negative attitudes toward minorities.
“That’s personal. That’s a bias,” she said. “You’re going to end it based on the male’s, the head of the household’s, end date? There’s a problem with that.”
Melvin said the court’s ruling sends a chilling message to anyone who would report discrimination in Kansas. The couple lost its vehicles and a house after being cut off from income.
“What this is really saying is, ‘Black lives don’t mean a damn.’ I mean, let’s just be frank about it,” Melvin said.
Jay Vehige, of Emporia Community Action, has organized events for Sept. 15 to commemorate a march led by the Hales five years ago. He said issues of systemic racism haven’t been addressed.
The university, which in recent years has defined limited spaces where public demonstrations can be held, blocked Vehige from planning events on campus. Instead, supporters will march to the library, where speeches will be delivered.
“We hope through our continued advocacy to one day be able to say and mean that ESU and the greater Emporia community now respects diversity, embraces it, and is united in our pursuit of justice, equity and liberation for all peoples,” Vehige said.
The Hales are scheduled to speak at the event via video conference.
Angelica attended a court hearing in June in Topeka, and took note of the rising awareness for institutional racism that was playing out in public protests across the country. She kneeled in front of the federal courthouse, where the Brown v. Board desegregation case was argued 56 years ago.
“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “That’s why I took a knee right now, because they were on our necks for five years. They had opportunities to reason with us and do the right thing and they did not do it.”
This story has been corrected to say an assistant director of human resources conducted the university’s internal review.