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Former Bowie State professor files $300K lawsuit against university

A former Bowie State University assistant professor has filed a $300,000 lawsuit against the school, alleging her superiors tried to deny her tenure and ultimately led her to resign in retaliation for her advocacy on behalf of women and minority students who claimed they were discriminated against by the historically black college.

Kesslyn Brade Stennis, who worked in the Department of Social Work at Bowie State’s College of Professional Studies from February 2009 to August 2014, alleged her supervisors cultivated a “hostile and offensive” workplace after she criticized other faculty members’ treatment of students, which she said amounted to unlawful retaliation in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“In supporting [Department of Social Work] students, Plaintiff was advocating that they receive equal treatment and not suffer discrimination from educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance,” the lawsuit states. “After Plaintiff engaged in protected activities for herself and on behalf of minority and female students … she suffered adverse employment actions taken against her.”

Bowie State University spokeswoman Damita Chambers declined to comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday and said the university has not yet seen it.

During an evaluation in spring 2013, Stennis told her department chairman and immediate supervisor, Dr. Andre Stevenson, that some students had expressed concerns about disparate treatment, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt last week. Stevenson responded that she should find out “what they thought” of him, the lawsuit states.

When she spoke with students, Stennis found that they believed Stevenson and other faculty members had discriminated against them because of their gender or sexual orientation, the suit states.

Around this time, Stevenson had “emphatically rejected” a student’s request that the department offer a course on LGBT issues, the suit states.

Several months later, Stennis typed up a report of the concerns students had expressed, which she eventually presented to Stevenson. He soon removed her as faculty adviser for the department’s social work club and started sending her “threatening and intimidating” emails, the suit states. He also began raising inaccurate claims about her professionalism, according to the complaint.

Although Stennis met with a human resources representative to address her concerns about the alleged discrimination against students and her own unfair treatment, the suit alleges no concrete action was taken.

Stennis submitted an application for tenure in October 2013. Later that semester, after Stevenson again reduced her teaching and departmental duties, the department of social work’s faculty review committee voted not to recommend her for tenure, a decision Stevenson encouraged, according to the lawsuit.

Stennis was told in July 2014 the university’s rank and tenure committee had recommended she receive tenure.

However, “the hostile and offensive and abusive environment created and fostered by Dr. Stevenson … continued unabated,” interfering with Stennis’ ability to perform her job and causing her emotional distress,  according to the suit.

Stennis resigned in 2014 and now works at Coppin State University.

The lawsuit alleges unlawful retaliation — in the form of constructive discharge and sabotage of Stennis’ efforts to obtain tenure — in violation of Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Stennis seeks $300,000 in actual and compensatory damages.

Nathaniel D. Johnson of The Johnson Law Firm in White Plains, who is representing Stennis, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.

The case is Kesslyn Brade Stennis v. Bowie State University, 8:16-cv-01362-RWT.

About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.