Education

Deal averts trial over Iowa 4-H discrimination claims

The state admits no wrongdoing in making $550,000 payout

(File photo) Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. The Gazette)
(File photo) Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. The Gazette)

The state has agreed to settle with a former Iowa State University employee who alleged there is rampant harassment and discrimination in the 4-H youth program the university’s extension service oversees.

John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas sued the state and several ISU administrators in April 2019 for a list of harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaints related to his time as Iowa 4-H leader in the ISU Extension and Outreach Services Office.

The state on Oct. 22 agreed to pay Chaisson-Cardenas a gross settlement of $550,000 — with $60,000 going directly to Chaisson-Cardenas and another $270,000 funding future periodic payments in the amount of $2,915.49 monthly through 2029.

The last $220,000 will cover attorney fees.

ISU, in making the deal, did not admit wrongdoing, according to the settlement. “We have nonetheless determined that it would be in the best interests of the state to resolve this matter to avoid the cost and risk of trial,” the deal said.

According to Chaisson-Cardenas’ lawsuit, he’s of Native American and Guatemalan ancestry and was told upon his hire in July 2014 that helping Iowa 4-H reach a more diverse population and become more inclusive were among his most important goals.

But, according to his assertions, the workplace environment changed with new leadership in 2017 — becoming even more conducive to discrimination.

He reported, in the suit, he was subjected to comments like, “He only cares about working with Latino youth because he is Latino,” and “We need to have a real American leading 4-H.”

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Other extension employees, along with ISU staff and students, said they, too, were the target of similar actions, Chaisson-Cardenas alleged. When he reported incidents to supervisors, according to the lawsuit, they chastised him for “overreacting.”

Incidents he laid out in the lawsuit include:

• During the 2017 Iowa State Fair, Chaisson-Cardenas said he asked the Iowa Hereford Breeders Association to remove a sign it posted boasting “Every Calf Deserves a White Face” featuring “the body of a white child wearing a 4-H T-shirt, with a cut-out space for a participant’s face.”

• In a highly-publicized September 2017 incident, several young people in Creston donned white hoods and took up weapons “in apparent homage to the Ku Klux Klan and set a cross afire in an open field.” Chaisson-Cardenas learned four of the five youths involved were recent or active members of Iowa 4-H and emailed supervisors to ask how they intended to handle it. They “made it clear that they did not intend to respond,” according to the lawsuit.

• That same month, Chaisson-Cardenas filed a complaint over several incidents “where applicants of color had not been hired by ISU (Extension and Outreach), in spite of having excellent qualifications.”

And Chaisson-Cardenas reported discrimination around his efforts to craft a new transgender youth policy for 4-H.

“On August 2, 2018, Chaisson-Cardenas … was told that he was being fired because ‘his inclusion work was getting in the way of our extension work,’” according to the suit. “The termination letter provided simply stated that the university was exercising its right to fire plaintiff as an at-will employee.”

ISU, according to the lawsuit, later released a statement to the Des Moines Register, which was investigating the program, stating that Chaisson-Cardenas had a “documented inability to foster a positive and collaborative work environment ... [and] a tendency to focus on individual tactical projects while neglecting the overall strategic direction of the Iowa 4-H program.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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