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Documents: UW-Whitewater veterans coordinator on leave, claims racism was behind it

Janesville Gazette - 12/19/2019

Dec. 19--WHITEWATER -- UW-Whitewater's coordinator of veterans and military services is on paid administrative leave following accusations of intimidating a student--a claim that documents show he strongly denies and instead asserts was racist.

Richard Harris was put on leave Dec. 5 after a dispute with Curtis Lemke, the president of UW-W's Student Veterans Organization, about the use of the multimedia resource room within the veterans lounge, according to documents obtained by The Gazette and first reported Monday by Madison365.

After the argument, in which Lemke claims Harris tried to intimidate him, Lemke went to Whitewater Student Government, which documents show then reached out to Harris' supervisor, Interim Director of Continuing Education John Fons.

The same day, the university put Harris on leave.

Harris the next day filed a complaint with the Milwaukee office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calling Lemke's allegations of intimidation false. He wrote that the student "has engaged in a pattern of racist and discriminatory conduct that has created a hostile work environment for me for several months," according to the documents.

The documents show Harris has said Lemke called him a "big Black guy" during the Dec. 5 dispute. Lemke told Madison365, a nonprofit news outlet, that he did "partially regret" saying something to that effect.

Harris also claims part of a Navy uniform display was removed, placed in the room at the center of the dispute and made to resemble a noose. Harris, according to the documents, said Lemke made an "off-hand" comment about it to him--something the student denied to Madison365.

When reached Wednesday, Harris declined comment.

When asked this week if Harris was on leave, a UW-W spokesperson said school officials do not comment on personnel matters.

Fons and Lemke did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Lemke told Madison365 he stood by his belief that Harris was acting in an intimidating manner. He said Harris is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and "towering over me." Madison365 included a photo showing Lemke appearing slightly taller than Harris, who is about 6 feet tall.

The disagreement over the multimedia room inside the veteran's lounge, which itself is in Andersen Library, did not begin Dec. 5. Documents show the topic has been at issue for months at least.

It appears Lemke wanted to use the space for meetings with the Student Veterans Organization, but Harris in the documents raised the point that this clashed with the space's intended purpose--for all student veterans in and out of the group to use for telecommunications and webinars, as well as to have a more quiet place to relax or hang out.

In November, Harris told Fons, his supervisor, Lemke did not accept alternative spaces where the group could meet, the documents state.

Harris said Lemke argued that his group had the authority to make changes to the lounge, according to the documents. Harris tried to have Fons intervene.

On the morning of the incident, documents show Harris alleged Lemke took chairs from the library to the lounge despite being told before not to do that. The rearranging on one occasion prevented another student veteran from using the space, according to the documents.

Harris wanted a meeting with Fons and the dean of students office about such actions that violate the student code of conduct--including unauthorized use of property and disrupting university-authorized activities.

Harris is on leave while the university investigates the incident.

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(c)2019 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.)

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