Crothers staffer files employment discrimination claim against Stanford

June 16, 2018, 11:35 a.m.

Update (June 22, 6:45 pm): The University has said that they have received the EEOC claim. “We received it yesterday (Thursday),” June 21, University spokesperson EJ Miranda said in an email to The Daily, “and it is under review.”

An Academic Theme Associate (ATA) in Crothers during the 2017-2018 school year has filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that she was unfairly prevented from staffing there for a second year due to mental illness.

The student, who asked for anonymity to keep her story and personal details private from future employers online, says that the Crothers Resident Fellows (RFs) — Professor Stephen Stedman and Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development program manager Corinne Thomas — compelled her to go through a formal re-application process that no other returning staffer was asked to partake in, culminating in the student not receiving an offer to return as a staffer.

A Crothers staffer with knowledge of the situation — who also requested anonymity to avoid damaging their relationship with the RFs — corroborated elements of her story.

Stedman and Thomas declined to discuss the matter, with Stedman saying that “as university employees [they] cannot comment on an individual student’s employment performance or mental health issues.”

In a submission to The Daily after this article’s publication, however, Stedman wrote that he and Thomas do not discriminate based on mental health when hiring staff. Noting that he has suffered from depression and once openly took a leave from teaching because of it, he emphasized his and Thomas’ commitment to accommodating and helping students who have a mental illness.

“Confidentiality precludes naming names, but we have selected students managing their mental health to be on our staff in the past,” he wrote. “In those cases, we felt that the candidates met our general selection criteria: empathy, trust, maturity, communication, teamwork, leadership and follow through. And we have supported staff who experienced mental health issues while on staff.”

According to the University, Stanford has not yet received the EEOC claim, even though it was supposedly sent several weeks ago.

This story comes on the heels of a lawsuit claiming that Stanford discriminated against multiple students struggling with mental health.

Attempted return

Because the staffing application opens up at the start of winter quarter, RFs typically begin discussing the potential for staff members to return next year as early as fall quarter.

Although the official policy of Residential Education (ResEd) is that would-be returning staffers “move through the Selection process like all other new applicants,” the student who filed the claim said that the actual process for returning staffers is generally much more lenient.

“Usually if you want to return and [the RFs] want you to return, and you don’t want to even consider [staffing] any other houses, they’ll automatically rehire you,” she explained. “So that means you fill out a blank application on the [application] portal, but pretty much you only rank, in this case, Crothers, and Crothers ranks you high, and you’re pretty much automatically re-assigned to live there again.”

She added that returning staffers also typically don’t have to interview with their RFs, either individually or in a group, like first-time applicants do.

The other anonymous Crothers staffer confirmed this, noting that staffers often only need to talk once with the RFs about staffing Crothers a second time.

Stedman contested that dorm staffers are by default allowed back.

“We do not automatically reappoint staff; we interview all staff interested in returning,” he said.

Criteria for staff, Stedman said, include the trust they inspire, their ability to communicate and work in a team, their inclusivity, their ability to “hold up under the stress of dealing with crises” and their community-building skills.

The student who filed with the EEOC was interested in returning to staff Crothers for 2018-2019 and met with Stedman and Thomas right after Thanksgiving break to discuss the process. However, in the same meeting, she said, she brought up that she was interested in getting a support animal the next year to help her deal with mental illness.

“I didn’t tell them what my specific diagnosis was,” the student said. “Just that I’m medicated, I’m seeing a therapist, and I hadn’t reached out to my therapist yet to see about getting a support animal. I just was curious about how that would work [and] what the process would look like to try to get more information.”

But after the RFs knew she was dealing with mental illness, she says they began openly questioning her ability to meet the demands of staffing, including being tough on residents. Most of their suspicion, she added, was rooted in a brief event several weeks earlier during which she had shown up to a dorm event with red eyes after an argument with a friend and co-staffer.

However, she said, at the time the RFs did not indicate that the “red eyes” incident — which, according to the other Crothers staffer who spoke to The Daily, was relatively insignificant and went unnoticed by residents — was a problem.

“After the event with red eyes, they just texted me, ‘Is everything okay,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, things are fine,’” the student alleging discrimination said. “There was no ‘Try to keep it on the low’… I wasn’t aware it was an issue until they brought it up in that meeting where I asked about the support animal.”

Following said meeting, she sent Stedman and Thomas an email reiterating that the “red eyes” incident did not reflect on her ability to staff. The three set up a subsequent meeting to discuss her re-applying to staff Crothers, but at that meeting, her mental health was again raised as a potential issue. According to her, the RFs suggested that “trauma” — which she had never discussed with them previously — might impede her ability to counsel residents going through tough times. They also asked that a mental health professional confirm in writing her ability to staff, she said.

“They wanted me to talk to my therapist and make sure I was capable of doing my job, which I was kind of taken aback by,” she said. “Like, no one else [was] being asked to provide proof that they’re capable of doing the job.”

She added, “I had never done anything to make them question my mental stability, which was what hurt.”

In the same meeting, she says that Stedman and Thomas brought up her parent’s divorce, and suggested that — in her paraphrase — “having divorced parents might leave [one] with trauma [and] make it difficult to be an RA.”

Rejection

After the follow-up meeting, the student went to the room of friend and Resident Assistant (RA) Chiamaka Ogwuegbu ’18, she said. However, soon after, Ogwuegbu was asked by Thomas to come talk with her and Stedman; he did so, leaving her in his room.

In the aftermath of this conversation, Ogwuegbu recounted his meeting with the RFs to the student who filed the claim. Discussing what she heard from Ogwuegbu, the student told The Daily that the RFs said that “based on [their] psychoanalysis, [she] had abandonment issues” and that they were “trying to see if [Ogwuegbu] knew of any instances of [her] being unstable or incapable of doing the [ATA] job.”

After the meeting, when Ogwuegbu returned to his room and told her what had happened, she felt distressed by Stedman and Thomas’ discussion of her personal life, including her mental health status and her parents’ divorce.

Soon after, the student left for winter break, during which time she got a note from her therapist confirming her ability to staff for a second year. But upon returning to Crothers, she said, she was again told by the RFs that they needed more time to consider whether she was capable of doing so.

“They said they didn’t want to take any other staffing positions away from me, so they recommended I go through the formal process, which is something no other staff members had to do,” she said.

However, she said, she assumed her work as ATA would speak for itself, and proceeded to re-apply to staff through the standard procedure — including doing so for dorms other than Crothers.

As the process continued, she did a one-on-one interview with Stedman and Thomas, as is standard for first-time applicants but generally not required of returning staffers. A group interview, also standard, was not required of her.

At the end of the solo interview, she asked the RFs if they’d decided whether to invite her back to staff. They responded, she says, by asking what she meant.

“And I was like, ‘Well, I was under the impression you guys were going to decide whether I was a good fit for Crothers and let me know whether I was going to return,’” she said. “[And] they’re like, ‘We can’t tell you that. Because you went through the formal process, we can’t tell you if we’re going to rank you or not.’”

The other anonymous Crothers staffer, who was not present at the interview, interpreted this as an intentional move on the part of the RFs.

“They basically made it seem as though their hands were tied in terms of how selection was supposed to happen because [she] applied to other places, even though they were the ones who encouraged her to apply to other places,” the staffer said.

A week later, staffing assignments came out. Despite ranking Crothers as her first choice, the student claiming discrimination did not get a position there. Given how the assignment system works, this suggests that the RFs intentionally didn’t rehire her.

“In order for [her] to not have received a Crothers spot, they would’ve needed to have placed her low on that list, because Crothers does not get all its first places,” the other staffer said. “We lose so many people to freshman dorms, et cetera, so it was a very intentional move on their part.”

Ultimately, the student who filed the claim found the entire process disheartening, and felt like she’d been intentionally discriminated against based on her mental health status.

“It felt like, constantly, double standards everywhere; that no matter where I turned, I just couldn’t do anything right,” she said.

Claims of discrimination

The student says she repeatedly tried to schedule meetings between herself, Stedman, Thomas and a ResEd mediator to address what had happened, but that the RFs were unresponsive. Feeling like she had no other options, she filed a formal complaint with ResEd, which she says is currently under investigation.

“But the way that ends up in the end is [that] I don’t know what the determination was,” she said. “They’ll just tell me, ‘We addressed it.’”

Looking for clearer answers to what had gone wrong, she turned to the EEOC. She had filed an inquiry in January, but then had to wait three and a half months to do her “intake interview.” By the time the Commission had written her claim and she’d edited and approved it, it was mid-May; Stanford was supposed to receive the formal complaint within the next 10 days, according to both her and the EEOC’s website.

Now, a month later, Stanford says it still hasn’t gotten the complaint.

“We have not received it,” said University spokesperson EJ Miranda in an email to The Daily Wednesday.

He added, “The student staff selection process has been designed to ensure equal access to opportunities for all qualified students.”

After being notified by The Daily of this, the student says she checked the EEOC’s online filing portal for an update, which showed that the Commission had uploaded the charge but that Stanford hasn’t yet responded.

If it does move forward, the finality that EEOC mediation would afford is not the only benefit she seeks. In addition to her own case, she says, other Crothers staffers have had similar problems, and an EEOC claim might offer a solution.

“I know I’m not the only staff member who’s had issues with this in the past,” she said. “A couple others have told me about their experiences with [Stedman] and [Thomas] specifically, and they told me in confidence so I can’t share anything about it, but I know I’m not the only staff member. It happened to a kid before me, and I feel like if I don’t do something to at least get ResEd’s attention now, to get some kind of change now, it’s going to keep happening.”

Emphasizing that he could not defend himself publicly on specific points, RF Stedman highlighted his personal experience with mental health issues and his past candor about it. In his statement, he wrote that he once gave a class lecture explaining to students that his temporary leave from teaching was due to depression, despite “powerful incentives to keep mental illness quiet.” 

Stedman said he and Thomas have shared Stedman’s experience with students going through similar struggles, “so that they know that despite how bad things feel in the short time, they will get better, that they are not alone, and that they can get help.”

The discrimination allegations “would come as a shock to any student we have supported over the years, and anyone who knows me and my personal history,” Stedman wrote.

Two former Crothers staffers who served as an ATA and RA respectively in 2016-17 wrote an op ed response Sunday after this piece’s publication, defending Stedman and Thomas and saying that the claim of discrimination is “wholly inconsistent” with their experience of the two RFs.

Ben Chao ’17, an ATA last year, said Stedman and Thomas visited him while he was hospitalized for mental illness as a staffer and “quickly reassured [Chao] that they had full faith in [his] ability to continue as an ATA,” talking with him throughout the remainder of the school year when he needed help. 

“In fact, they offered the idea that I would be more effective as a staffer because of my experiences, as I could help residents facing similar challenges navigate the resources and support offered by Stanford,” Chao wrote.

Chao’s co-staffer at the time, Whitney McIntosh ’17, echoed his statement as someone familiar with what Chao dealt with.

“In all my experiences of Steve and Corinne, they have continuously demonstrated empathy for the challenges students face, not only in their academic work at Stanford, but in their personal lives,” McIntosh wrote.

The student who filed with the EEOC said that, following her own negative experience discussing mental health with her RFs — vis a vis the initial question about getting a service animal — she has warned others to not disclose any such personal information to Stedman and Thomas.

“Do not tell them anything about what you’re going through, because they will use it against you,” she says she tells students.

Staffer-RF relationships are particularly difficult to navigate, she added, because power dynamics in the relationship skew in one direction.

“I was sitting there like, ‘I don’t know who to reach out to,’ because I was scared during the hiring process and interviewing at other houses [that] if I complain about my RFs, they’d blacklist me from other houses,” the student who filed said. “It’s a huge power indifference, where you feel lost and [have] no one to turn to.”

Stedman, on the other hand, criticized what he sees as the promotion of a “narrative of victimhood that argues that those who suffer from mental illness should in fact keep it to themselves and not avail themselves of all the resources that Stanford’s safety net has to offer.” He called the allegations against him “one-sided.”

The University, for its part, maintains that it “cares deeply about the health and well-being of all… students and works to ensure students have full and equal access to the benefits of Stanford’s programs, facilities, and services,” according to Miranda.

“The University is mindful of our obligations in this area under the law and believes we have complied with them,” Miranda wrote in another email to The Daily following questions about both the Crothers situation and the recent discrimination lawsuit filed against the University. He added that “the University is unable to comment on a particular student’s employment situation or health status.”

For the student who alleges discrimination, the issue goes beyond just the two Crothers RFs; it’s more systemic, she says.

“My bigger issue with ResEd is [that] there’s a lack of oversight in how RFs are handling their houses, especially the hiring process for those who are returning,” she said. “There’s no oversight whatsoever.”

ResEd declined to provide additional comment.

Contact Brian Contreras at brianc42 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

This piece has been updated to include comments sent after the article’s initial publication, from Stephen Stedman and former Crothers staffers Ben Chao and Whitney McIntosh. 

Brian Contreras was the Daily's Investigations Editor during the '19-'20 school year. Before that, he was a Managing Editor of the news section. A graduate of Stanford's class of 2020, he studied Science, Technology, and Society with a minor in Anthropology. Brian hails from Washington, DC and is pursuing a career in tech journalism. Contact him at briancontreras42 'at' gmail.com.

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