Lawsuit: African American student claims racial discrimination at Hamline

Former online student Gary Prewitt claims he had no problems until he had to go to Hamline in person and get his picture taken for a student ID.

Former online student Gary Prewitt claims he had no problems until he had to go to Hamline in person and get his picture taken for a student ID. Hamline University

Gary Prewitt of Nashville is 30 years old, more than $80,000 in debt from student loans, and still without the masters degree in education he set out to get from Hamline University in 2009.

With just one course standing in the way of graduation, Prewitt claims Hamline refused to give him classwork and refused to grade his assignments, finally expelling him in 2014 without notice or a hearing. He sued Hamline for racial discrimination the following year, and after unsuccessful attempts by the university to have the case dismissed, it's finally going to trial this July.

Prewitt enrolled in an online graduate program in 2009, choosing Hamline because of its Christian affiliation. He earned mostly As and Bs over the next few years, with the exception of one C. He claims all went swimmingly until just prior to graduation, when he had to take a two-week course at the St. Paul campus. His picture was taken for a student ID. Before then, he'd never identified his race.

He believes his professors started treating him differently afterward. When he applied to graduate in the spring of 2013 after earning 150 percent of the required course credits and paying off tuition, Hamline denied his petition, citing the C he'd earned. Prewitt asked his professor if he could complete an extra assignment. The professor agreed, but the department didn't.

Later Prewitt enrolled in an independent study course in another attempt to satisfy the graduation requirement. He claims that despite repeated requests his advisor wouldn't assign him any coursework, leading to an incomplete grade that later turned into an F.

Prewitt complained to Hamline as well as the U.S. Department of Education, which investigated and found there was insufficient evidence of racial discrimination. Hamline told the Department of Education that Prewitt appealed his C grade more than a year after it was issued, which was too late per school policy, and that the advisor who allegedly ignored his requests for assignments had email issues that semester. The advisor communicated with students through the online course platform Blackboard, according to Hamline.

In the midst of the Department of Education investigation, Hamline abruptly terminated Prewitt's access to the online student system, effectively expelling him.

The Department of Education's conclusion didn't preclude Prewitt from filing a lawsuit, his legal representative Christine Anderson says, because the agency isn't capable of doing an exhaustive investigation into matters as complex as the gradual encroachment of discriminatory treatment that Prewitt alleges.

She argues that if Hamline's policy of only allowing students to appeal their grades within one year is correct, the university shouldn't have allowed Prewitt to continue working toward and paying tuition for a degree that was impossible to attain.

Because it's been so long since Prewitt's days at Hamline, it's unclear if any other schools would recognize his credits. Anderson says it's unlikely he would be accepted anywhere else because of the F on his transcript.

"He was just really distraught and destroyed by what happened here because they effectively stopped his life," she says. "They just put him in a bad place. They've really done nothing at this particular point to rectify it."

 Hamline declined to comment on pending litigation.