A full-time English as a second language (ESOL) teacher at the University of Washington (UW) has been placed on probation for allegedly making Muslim and gay students feel “unsafe” due to some of the topics she discussed in class. Her administrator seemingly launched an inquisition against her, even asking her point-blank if she read her Bible on campus — in a formal meeting with Human Resources.
“Due to discrimination and harassment because of my religion, my work place has become a hostile environment, and I am now afraid to teach,” Susanna Asberry, who has taught ESOL since 2006, wrote in a letter to Seattle radio host Todd Herman.
Asberry recalled two incidents in 2015 and 2017 when students had complained about her teaching and her director mocked her for her religion or pursued an unjustified case against her.
In 2015, a female Muslim student filed a formal complaint against Asberry, claiming that she had “made comments about God during and after class that were offensive to her and … had not promoted a positive learning environment.” In that class, the ESOL teacher explained the term “bucket list,” and students had to make examples of their own bucket lists.
“That is when a student wanted to know what would be on mine,” Asberry wrote. “I replied that I would like to tell people about God.” This allegedly harmed the female Muslim.
One day, Asberry found this student crying outside her classroom, and the student later explained that her husband was cheating on her. Trying to comfort her, the ESOL teacher said that she prays during difficult times.
The student’s complaint came shortly after she had received a failing grade in the class at the end of the quarter. Due to the complaint, Director James C. Evans summoned Asberry to a formal meeting with Human Resources staffer Joanna Hambrick. The administration issued a warning letter saying the ESOL teacher had violated UW’s Executive Order 31, a nondiscrimination policy.
According to Asberry, the meeting and the warning letter disregarded “the fact that other Muslim students were in this class and that I had received high student evaluations at the end of the quarter.” Worse, during the meeting, Evans asked her directly, “Do you read your Bible on campus?”
In the warning letter, the administration “forbade me any mentioning of ‘God’ or referencing my religious belief such as praying,” because her comments had “harassed and discriminated against this female Muslim student.” Asberry disputed the incident with the union, and only a copy of a letter about the incident was recorded in her personnel file.
In the fall of 2017, two Chinese students, one of whom is gay, collaborated to file a formal complaint against Asberry, claiming she had made the learning environment unsafe. The students objected after a class on writing argumentative essays, during which Asberry and students discussed the pros and cons of gay marriage as an exercise to practice arguing opposing viewpoints.
“Soon after this lesson, the gay Chinese student filed a complaint against me making outrageous statements that I am ‘against homosexuals’ and more of that nature, including that I am a racist,” Asberry wrote. The racist claim proved absurd, as this ESOL teacher is married to a black man and has two biracial sons…
“Immediately, my Director James C. Evans along with HR placed me under a formal investigation and once again summoned me to a formal disciplinary hearing,” the ESOL teacher recalled. During the meeting, Evans asked her “a discriminatory question, ‘Are you against gay marriage?’ And also added at the end that both of these students claim that I am a very good teacher.”
Following this incident, Asberry wrote that since January she has been “threatened with unemployment and … ordered to follow harsh disciplinary actions.” On January 17, she and her union representatives met with Evans and Hambrick to try to mitigate their actions, but their efforts failed.
During that meeting, Evans angrily walked out of the room to “cool off.” Asberry argued that this action “clearly showed his true feelings and his harboring of anger towards me.” She added, “I also wondered if I as a teacher walked out of one of my classes to cool off like that what would be the consequences?”
Also during that meeting, Evans declared, “Based on what the other colleagues say about you, I BELIEVE those two students!” Asberry wondered where he had heard negative rumors from her colleagues. “Is he listening to rumors, eavesdropping, talking to teachers behind my back?”
“He is prejudging me because I am a conservative (based on what he’s heard about me), so then I must be guilty of the crime!” she wrote. “He is using these prejudgments to create just cause and thus formally disciplining me. This is completely unethical, unprofessional, and inappropriate that he has been talking to or hearing what others say/think about me.”
Then Asberry added something particularly interesting. “What if I were a gay, Muslim or transgender teacher and he had said this to me, ‘I know what other teachers say about you’?” she wrote.
In this context, the ESOL teacher argued that Evans’s “statement is clearly discriminatory, and now I understand why I am being harassed and punished. His comment clearly reveals that he is discriminating against me because of my religion.”
Even so, Asberry, not Evans, is on “probation.” During her probation, the ESOL teacher is required to attend a “Race, Bias, and Dissonance” class this spring, administer regular student evaluations, and be observed in class by none other than James Evans himself, “during a few unannounced drop-ins.”
Her probation letter read ominously: “This letter serves as your final warning. The University will not tolerate on-going violations of Executive Order 31. Should the above expectations not be met, or should additional concerns be substantiated, which may include offensive and unwelcome comments … the result may be your separation of employment.”
Asberry argued that she had never broken Executive Order 31, but that Evans had. That order defines discrimination as “conduct that treats a person less favorably because of the person’s race, color, creed, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, pregnancy, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity of expression, disability or veteran status.”
The order defines harassment as “conduct directed at a person because of the person’s” various status as listed above “that is unwelcome and sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive that … it could be reasonably expected to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or learning environment, or it has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work or academic performance.”
While the students argued that Asberry discriminated against them based on their religion (Muslim) and sexual orientation (gay), resulting in a hostile learning environment, Asberry argued that Evans’s inquisition discriminated against her on the basis of her Christian religion, resulting in a hostile work environment.
“Naturally, this experience has been devastating and traumatizing to me for the majority of my students’ evaluations are consistently very high and positive,” the ESOL teacher wrote. In the Fall Quarter 2017 class when the second complaint was filed, she received a 4.9 out of 5 rating, and a student praised her teaching at an end-of-the-quarter ceremony.
This past January, Asberry filed a discriminatory complaint against Evans, but when the investigation came to a close on March 30, the administration did not reveal any results. The union officials involved in previous meetings were not approached during this investigation.
“Due to discrimination and harassment because of my religion, my work place has become a hostile environment, and I am now afraid to teach,” Asberry concluded. “I did not, never have and do not discriminate against nor harass any of my students.”
The ESOL teacher, who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, told radio host Todd Herman that her treatment at the University of Washington reminded her of how her loved ones were abused by Russian authorities when the Soviet Union invaded her birth country.