Banned from the lab
An Arab-American Sacramento City College student claims the school is discriminating against him
It’s said that politics and religion should never be discussed at the dinner table. The topics are apparently taboo at Sacramento City College as well, according to Arab-American student Khaled Umbashi.
The 53-year-old Libyan native claims a computer lab coordinator employed by the college used her authority to eject him from the lab after becoming upset during a spirited discussion of Middle East politics last spring. Umbashi has tried to tell school administrators his side of the story ever since, but said it has fallen upon deaf ears. In December, the school expelled him for incidents he claims were orchestrated by the lab coordinator and a colleague.
“This is the way it is,” says Umbashi. “Ever since 9/11, I’ve been going through this crap.” He’s been acutely aware of the anti-Islamic sentiment that’s been stewing in the country since the terrorist attacks; this reporter first wrote about Umbashi two years ago (“Call me Mohamed”; SN&R News; August 17, 2006), when he contacted SN&R about gross mischaracterizations of Islam in his teenage son’s geography text book. The Sacramento Bee subsequently followed up on the story. If he’s sensitive, he feels he has reason to be.
Nevertheless, Sacramento City College spokesperson Amanda Hamilton said that Umbashi’s allegations of discrimination are groundless.
“Mr. Umbashi’s voice was heard throughout our discipline process in interviews, one-on-one meetings and an appeals hearing, which included the opportunity for him to tell his side of the story, make closing remarks and also bring witnesses on his own behalf,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton contacted SN&R after this reporter directly called the city college administrators and employees involved in Umbashi’s expulsion. She repeatedly declined all further requests for interviews with any employee or administrator who had heard Umbashi’s side of the story and could refute it.
For Umbashi, the story began early last year, when he enrolled at city college to earn a certificate in computer-aided design, or CAD. Formerly a petroleum engineer before contracting a disabling lung disease, he hoped to learn enough skills to start his own business and supplement his Social Security income. Like many older students who return to school, mastering today’s complex computer programs presented a steep learning curve, and he soon found himself spending all of his Saturdays at the college’s Mac CAD lab.
On a pleasant Saturday last April, a group of the Saturday regulars were gathered outside the lab, enjoying the weather and casually conversing when the subject turned to the Middle East. Like many Muslims, Umbashi is a fierce supporter of Palestine and vehement critic of Israel. The lab coordinator, who informed Umbashi that she was Jewish, took offense at his remarks.
“She was stunned,” Umbashi recalls. “She turned right back around and went inside.”
The next Saturday, Umbashi returned to the lab with his usual morning cup of coffee. Snacks and refreshments are sold in the lab, and according to several students SN&R spoke to who used the lab at the time, the rule prohibiting eating and drinking in the lab was rarely, if ever, enforced. After an hour, Umbashi left the lab to go to the bathroom. When he returned, his cup of coffee had been removed from his desk by the lab coordinator.
“I took it; you’re not supposed to have coffee,” he recalls her saying. “I’m here to enforce the rules.”
“I’m not in your house,” he grumbled incredulously. “Why didn’t you say anything when you saw me walk in with it?” He then took the nearly empty cup and threw it toward a nearby garbage can. It missed and spilled on the floor. Umbashi quickly cleaned it up. Disturbed by the incident, he approached the assistant lab coordinator at the end of her shift.
“Excuse me,” he recalls saying. “I just want to know why you’re acting like that. Every Saturday, we’ve come in here, there’s been no problem.”
According to Umbashi, the coordinator instantly burst into hysterics, accusing him of harassing her and threatening to call the campus police. He quickly backed away and returned to his computer station. “I didn’t want any trouble,” he recalls. “I told her I’d see the dean about it on the following Monday.”
SN&R attempted to contact the lab coordinator directly to get her side of the story. The coordinator in turn called Hamilton, who informed the paper that the coordinator felt threatened by the reporter’s inquiries. Hamilton requested that SN&R not publish the employee’s name.
On the following Monday, Umbashi went to the Mac CAD lab first, and chief lab coordinator Chris Seddon informed him he’d been expelled from the lab. He referred the student to Donnetta Webb, dean of advanced technology. Umbashi immediately went to Webb’s office and attempted to relate the account above.
“Don’t you know the story?” he asked.
“I already know the story,” he says she replied.
Based solely on the coordinator’s accusations, Webb accused him of causing a disturbance in the lab. Then, as a condition for future lab access, she asked him to sign a form indicating that he complied with the decision and understood the rule regarding food and beverages.
Neither Webb nor Seddon responded to attempts to contact them directly. SN&R was advised that all questions related to Umbashi should be directed to SCC spokesperson Hamilton.
Umbashi signed the form and returned to the lab without incident, but took his grievance up the chain of command, to vice president of student services Michael Poindexter. Poindexter requested the grievance in writing, which Umbashi delivered in late May. According to Umbashi, the vice president never got back to him.
With head low, Umbashi continued using the lab during the fall semester. He was careful not to eat or drink in the lab, even though other students continued to do so. The lab also prohibits the use of cell phones, and even though students told SN&R many continued to violate that rule as well, Umbashi was careful to set his phone to vibrate and take his calls outside.
In early October, Umbashi’s cell phone buzzed, and he got up from his computer to take the call outside the lab. He said hello to the caller as he was walking out the door. When he returned after the call, a male assistant lab coordinator informed him that cell phones weren’t permitted in the lab. Umbashi explained to him that he’d taken the call outside. Later that same day, when another student took a call inside the lab and no action was taken, Umbashi asked the assistant why. Before the assistant could answer, another coordinator, a close colleague of the coordinator who’d accused him of harassment in the spring, jumped into the conversation and expelled him from the lab once more.
“They were really after me,” Umbashi recalled, admitting that he told them he would “get even,” by which he meant call the campus newspaper, The Sacramento Bee and SN&R, which he did shortly afterward. The lab personnel interpreted the remark as a physical threat and referred Umbashi to Catherine Fites, dean of enrollment and student services.
He told his story once again, and Fites said she would interview Seddon and the lab coordinators and get back to him. According to Umbashi, she never did, and he was suspended from the lab indefinitely. His final chance to get back in the lab came at a student disciplinary appeals committee in December.
At the hearing, Umbashi’s original accusers were not present. Nor were there any witnesses to verify his accuser’s accounts. He told his story one more time, to a panel that included Fites, Webb, Seddon and several student-body representatives. Such proceedings are not public record, but Umbashi surreptitiously recorded it. On the recording, he recounts his story and with no discussion is told he has no grounds for an appeal.
“That’s it?” says an exasperated Umbashi.
In her final written decision, Sacramento City College president Kathryn Jeffery, referring in part to Umbashi’s offhand remark to “get even,” permanently barred the student from the Mac CAD lab and ordered him to undergo anger-management training by February 28 or risk being expelled from the school.
“Our records show that you failed to abide by the agreement signed by you regarding your conduct in the lab,” Jeffery wrote in her final decision. “You defied the authority of the coordinators in the lab and even threatened the safety of the coordinators.”
Sacramento City College spokesperson Amanda Hamilton insists that the school’s process has treated Umbashi fairly. He’s been given every opportunity to present his grievance. That may be so, but it contradicts the letter Umbashi received from Julia Jolly, the school’s equity/grievance officer, two weeks after this reporter began making inquiries in late January.
“I understand that you have had a conversation with vice president Poindexter regarding a student concern that may or may not include possible discrimination,” Jolly wrote. “If you wish to pursue a possible discrimination complaint, please contact my office.”
Umbashi scheduled an appointment with Jolly, but decided not to go. The school’s decision has already been made. He has no plans to attend anger-management training. He’s frustrated enough already. His education plans are currently on hold.