Student seeks injunction against TSU in connection with discrimination suit

Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 2:29am

A Tennessee State University student has asked for an injunction against her school, asking that no retaliation take place against her as a result of her ongoing lawsuit alleging practices of racial discrimination and retaliation by members of the school's faculty and staff.

The student, Clarksville resident and Guam native Angela Cela, filed her lawsuit in February against TSU and several professors employed there. On Thursday, Cela asked for an injunction against TSU, asking that she not be punished — or prevented from graduating this spring — due to the suit.

Cela and her attorneys claim in court documents that a subjective portion of a comprehensive exam was given a negative grade by a professor named specifically in Cela’s suit. Furthermore, the suit claims, university officials have determined that Cela should not graduate on time due to her score in the test, though the suit argues that there are no grading policies and no precedent that justify the decision. 

“What is clear from the facts is that nowhere in the policies and procedures relative to graduation from the TSU Speech Pathology Program is a certain grade required on the Comps in order for one to graduate,” the suit reads. “In fact, the evidence establishes that several African American Students have failed the essay portion of the Comps and were allowed to graduate.”

Nashville attorneys Hal Hardin, Jeffery "Chip" Frensley and Bill Herbert are representing Cela. Hardin and Frensley are known to many in the community for prevailing in the lawsuit against the Nashville U.S. Attorney's office and then-U.S. Attorney Jim Vines, in the age discrimination lawsuit of Moon vs. Department of Justice.

The defendants in this case are Tennessee State University, professors Dr. Iris Johnson-Arnold and Dr. Tina Smith and Dr. Harold R. Mitchell, a department head.

Cela’s original complaint, filed in federal court, alleges that professors Smith and Johnson-Arnold, who served as advisers to TSU students regarding grant funding, and Mitchell, who was the head of the TSU Department of Speech and Audiology, “engaged in a systematic policy of unlawful practices of discrimination by creating a pervasive hostile environment based upon race, color, or national origin with respect to grading practices and in the awarding of grant monies to the Plaintiff and others similarly situated.”

TSU has denied these claims in recent court filings.

The university is no stranger to race-related legal allegations. A long-standing civil rights case was filed by plaintiff Rita Sands Geier against the state of Tennessee and the U.S. government in 1968, and wasn’t dismissed until 2006.

The case, which targeted alleged segregation in Tennessee’s higher education system, expanded to include a TSU faculty member and others in the 1970s. That led to a court-ordered merger of TSU and the University of Tennessee at Nashville, which in turn led to merger-related grievances filed in the 1980s.

 NashvillePost.com writer Ken Whitehouse contributed to this report.