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Ga. college accused of discriminating against Black employees

A document they signed at the beginning of their employment gives up their right to a jury trial. Former employees are fighting that policy.
Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 12:13 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is accused of racial discrimination and retaliation – not once, but three times – by Black former employees.

In a discrimination charge filed last week, a former SCAD professor details several examples in which she felt she was treated “differently” than white faculty members in her department.

In a separate federal lawsuit, a former head fishing coach claims some of his student-athletes referred to him as the N-word, and when he reported these incidents to SCAD leadership, he says they “took no action to address the hostile work environment, and the abuse continued.”

The former employees said they were fired after they complained to their higher-ups.

SCAD refutes the claims, telling CBS46 Investigates, “All SCAD human resources practices are fair, just, and professional.” Read SCAD’s full response at the bottom of this article.

“Swept under the rug”

“It’s bigger than fishing,” Isaac Payne said. The former SCAD head fishing coach says he feels he was lured to a college that preached inclusion and respect – only to be faced with what his lawsuit calls “discriminatory treatment because of his race” and “retaliation” when he complained to his higher-ups.

“I feel like they betrayed me. Remember I’m not just an employee there. I’m an alumni,” Payne told CBS46 investigative reporter Rachel Polansky. “You need our service to your institution but you won’t treat us the same.”

As an undergrad at SCAD, Isaac Payne founded the college’s first fishing club. In 2015 after he graduated, he was offered a full-time job as head coach for both the men’s and women’s fishing teams.

According to Payne’s federal lawsuit, most of the abuse came from student-athletes who “frequently referred to Mr. Payne as a ‘n***er’.” But he said it wasn’t just racial epithets. “It was the idea of, ‘Hey we’re gonna take this coaches’ boat, drive it up a sandbar and tear it to shreds. Like, how would you feel if you’re traveling to a competition with these students and parents, with an athletic director that knows about it, with a compliance and HR department that knows about it, and all you tell that coach is ‘Just keep coaching’.”

According to his federal lawsuit, Payne said he faced “discriminatory treatment because of his...
According to his federal lawsuit, Payne said he faced “discriminatory treatment because of his race” and “retaliation” when he complained to his higher-ups.(Rachel Polansky)

Payne said he reported these incidents, among others, to SCAD leadership but his lawsuit says they “took no action to address the hostile work environment, and the abuse continued.” Payne claimed, “It was just swept under the rug when I brought it to their attention.”

Eventually – he was fired. But SCAD said in their motion to dismiss, that firing Payne “had nothing to do with his race and everything to do with his unacceptable conduct as a leader,” adding, “SCAD received a number of disturbing complaints about him,” including:

-“Creating and fostering a culture of bullying and intimidation”

-“Failing to enforce the school’s drug and alcohol policy”

-”Disclosing confidential student information to parents of other student athletes”

“Criticized for being emotional”

Payne is not the only former employee speaking out. Former SCAD employee Shantell Colebrooke says Payne’s allegations bare striking similarities to her own. “This is a pattern for them,” Colebrooke said.

“I think they’re all about their image but the image is flawed - and I don’t want my color to be used to bring in people who look like me,” the former employee explained.

Colebrooke taught English as a Second Language (ESL) at SCAD’s Language Studio in 2021. As an immigrant herself, she found common ground with her international students.

“SCAD was my dream place to work, which is why this is so painful,” Colebrooke told CBS46.

Colebrooke filed a discrimination charge, in which she claims “SCAD fired me because I’m black...
Colebrooke filed a discrimination charge, in which she claims “SCAD fired me because I’m black and in retaliation for complaining about discriminatory treatment.”(Rachel Polansky)

Colebrooke was also fired. And just last week – she filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which she says “SCAD fired me because I’m black and in retaliation for complaining about discriminatory treatment.”

Her discrimination charge also details several examples in which she felt she was treated “differently” than “white faculty,” including:

- “I was assigned a workload that was more difficult than my white colleagues in the department.”

- “I was not provided the same technical or substantive support or training other faculty, who were white, were given.”

- “While SCAD management showed empathy and understanding to white faculty when they were upset or stressed, I was criticized for being ‘emotional’.”

“They would have these meetings and just rail on me. ‘Well, I don’t know where you were educated. I don’t know where you got your degree.’ The hardest thing for me was to pretend that I was stupid,” Colebrooke added.

CBS46 Investigates found another discrimination claim from 2019 when the college’s director of giving, Darnell Holcomb, was fired because SCAD said he “did not meet fundraising performance goals.” However, Holcomb said in a court filing, “I believe there is an undercurrent of racial bias among SCAD leadership that leads them to hold black faculty and staff to a higher standard than our white counterparts.”

Pre-Dispute Arbitration Clauses

In all three cases, the former employees signed ‘pre-dispute arbitration clauses’ when they took their jobs. That’s something all new SCAD employees are required to do. It means if any issues or problems arise, they’re agreeing to settle them through a legal process called arbitration – rather than in a courtroom, judged by a jury of their peers.

Payne and Colebrooke’s attorney, Dan Werner, calls it an attempt to sweep discrimination under the rug and argues the clause is not enforceable.

“Because it forces the employee into a proceeding that’s heavily slanted in favor of the employer,” Werner told CBS46 Investigates. “During their new employee orientation, they were signing all the paperwork you get and among the paperwork was one page that SCAD claims subjects them to mandatory arbitration. They didn’t even realize they were required to follow this process until they came to me and I reviewed the paperwork.”

According to data analyzed by the American Arbitration Association, workers were awarded money in just 1.6-percent of employment arbitration cases in 2020.

SCAD defends its arbitration policies, with a spokesperson saying, “the use of alternative dispute resolution methods is quite common,” adding that “all SCAD human resources practices are fair, just, and professional.”

Isaac Payne is now appealing his case with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, after the arbitration clause was upheld by the U.S. District Court twice.

“We took it to the court system and now we’re out in the open. I’m not afraid of SCAD,” Payne said.

In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that could prohibit companies from enforcing agreements that require employees and consumers to bring legal disputes to private arbitration. The Democrat-led House voted 222-209 to pass the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act. If passed, the FAIR Act would also invalidate pre-dispute arbitration agreements in employment, consumer, antitrust, and civil rights disputes. Now, the fate of the FAIR Act remains in the Senate’s hands. Supporters believe the FAIR Act would provide more fairness to workers and consumers, while opponents argue it would deprive workers and consumers of a faster and sometimes cheaper alternative to litigation.

SCAD’s Full Response

SCAD issued the following statement to CBS46 Investigates.

If there’s something you would like CBS46 investigates to dig into, fill out this submission form.

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