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Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Former Mount Hood Community College Official Says She Saw Discrimination, Malfeasance at the School

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 3:14 PM

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A former Mount Hood Community College official is now lobbing serious accusations at the institution, claiming to have witnessed race and gender discrimination, misappropriation of funds and other misdeeds while employed there.

Mary-Elizabeth Harper served as director of labor relations at MHCC from October 2011 until July 2012, when she was fired. In a lawsuit filed against the school last month, Harper says the split came about because she voiced alarm to supervisors about a host of issues. When those complaints fell on deaf ears, the woman says she brought her concerns to a member of the school's Board of Education, who reported them to the Secretary of State's office.

One of the objections, apparently, resulted in an audit of the school that found questionable financial practices at MHCC's new wilderness education program.

But according to Harper's lawsuit, her criticisms also led to discipline and her eventual firing.

"I was placed on administrative leave during the period between the time that the Board member reported the incident and the commencement of the investigation," says the suit Harper, an attorney, filed herself September 13. "Within approximately two months of discussing these issues with Board member I was terminated."

The complaint makes sweeping and concerning claims, but is short on details. Harper says she reported to her superiors instances of "serious race, gender and national origin discrimination towards other MHCC employees and students," "serious concerns regarding the mismanagement and misuse of college funds," "violations of law governing student financial aid," and "serious violations of MHCC policy."

The lawsuit doesn't offer specifics.

"I feel comfortable making (the allegations) because of the evidence I have," Harper told the Mercury in a brief phone interview this week. "At this time I do not want to get in any detail about the specifics. I will pursue it."

MHCC board of education members and a spokesman declined to comment on the claims.

Harper says her complaints were "downplayed and not taken seriously" by top-tier officials at the college. "Furthermore, my immediate supervisor and others in management started to shun and became more hostile towards me," the suit says. "The president and vice president started to do things to discourage me from further reporting/investigating these issues."

Harper, who is still without a job, wants back pay for the time she's spent unemployed (her salary was roughly $102,725 a year), and $150,000 in non-economic damages.

It appears there was at least some reason for concern during the time period Harper is talking about. According to the Secretary of State audit, which the woman suggests she spurred, MHCC wasn't adequately monitoring expenses for its Wilderness Leadership Experiential Education program.

The program leads students on outdoors excursions, and offers up school-owned equipment for use on the treks. But auditors found instructors weren't keeping track of the equipment, were purchasing items for students and not documenting whether they were reimbursed, and were undisciplined with school-provided purchasing cards.

The school announced in late October 2012 it was addressing those issues.

According to Secretary of State Spokesman Tony Green, the office heard another allegation about MHCC, "but found no evidence to support it, and didn't issue a report."

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