Westminster College student sues for discrimination after school moves her and her service dog 8 times

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katrina Cleaveland, a student at Westminster College, moves into a new apartment in Salt Lake City on Friday Dec. 13, 2019.

Light, cold drizzle fell as Katrina Cleaveland pulled a wagon full of her belongings across a parking lot and into her new apartment on Foothill Drive on Friday.

She’d prefer to be living on campus at Westminster College, the liberal arts college she attends in Salt Lake City. But she can’t, not until September, because she’s suspended until then from student housing.

In the meantime, the 21-year-old student has sued Westminster, accusing it of discrimination in denying her reasonable housing accommodations for her and her service dog, Todd.

The lawsuit asserts Cleaveland, who has severe hearing impairment and post-traumatic stress disorder, was moved eight times in nine months. Many of the moves were required because the school put her in “environments not conducive to her need for a service animal,” it alleges.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katrina Cleaveland, a student at Westminster College, moves into a new apartment in Salt Lake City on Friday Dec. 13, 2019.

She was eventually evicted from student housing, the suit said, over an anti-Semitic drawing she says was created and left behind by a former roommate.

Cleaveland’s eyes brimmed with tears as she sat on the teal couch in her new apartment and explained why she felt she had no recourse but to sue her “dream school."

“It’s been really difficult, and it just seems like they just kept pushing the issue,” Cleaveland said. “And maybe this [lawsuit] will make them stop and maybe think a little bit better in the future if they run into a similar problem."

Westminster spokeswoman Arikka Von said she couldn’t comment on the facts of the case — such as Cleaveland’s housing situation, disciplinary records and academics — because it would violate the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA.

However, she said, Westminster “prides itself on taking great care of our students."

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katrina Cleaveland, a student at Westminster College, moves into a new apartment in Salt Lake City on Friday Dec. 13, 2019. Helping Cleaveland is Keith Burnett.

She added that emotional support and service animals are allowed, with proper permissions, in student housing.

“Westminster is committed to providing a safe environment for learning and growth of all our students. We take our promise to care for students very seriously. Therefore, the college holds students accountable for violations of the Student Code of Conduct, Campus Housing Handbook, and Equal Opportunity policy, among many other policies,” Von wrote in an email.

“Westminster’s core values include respect for diverse people and perspectives; collaboration and teamwork; personal and social responsibility; collegewide excellence; and high ethical standards," she added.

Conference clash

According to the lawsuit, Cleaveland first encountered discrimination during her freshman year, when she was given the chance to attend a Residence Hall Association conference in Idaho.

Cleaveland needs Todd, her service dog, to navigate unfamiliar places. Because she has hearing loss, Todd notifies her when people approach. Cleaveland also has anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and Todd helps her feel more secure.

Halfway through the conference, a member of the Residence Hall Association reported that Todd growled at someone, although nobody else noticed it and Todd, the lawsuit states, is normally well-behaved.

Regardless, Cleaveland and Todd were moved to the back of the room, where the student had difficulty hearing the presentations. The pair was also forced to sit in the back of the van on the way back to Utah. Cleaveland felt “ostracized,” according to the suit, since she couldn’t hear well enough to talk to her peers on the ride.

After the conference, Cleaveland was removed as the incoming vice president of the group, and the faculty adviser told her she was not a good fit due to her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the suit said. The adviser also “expressed annoyance” at Todd’s attendance at the conference, it said.

(Photo courtesy Katrina Cleaveland) Katrina Cleaveland's service dog, Todd

For the next school year, Cleaveland and several friends requested an apartment together, but Cleaveland was assigned to an apartment with a roommate who was allergic to dogs, the suit said.

Cleaveland then was moved to another apartment, where, again, her new roommate was allergic to dogs. The moving aggravated Cleaveland’s anxiety and depression and heightened her PTSD symptoms, the suit said, alleging that she thought about suicide and began to self-harm, something she hadn’t done in years. She also started doing poorly in school and was placed on academic probation.

Cleaveland ended her sophomore year with a roommate in student housing known as “The Draw" across from Sugar House Park. When school ended that May, family and friends helped Cleaveland’s roommate move out, and Cleaveland — who planned to return there with a new roommate — left to spend the summer at home in central Utah.

Racist drawing

Cleaveland moved back in that fall and saw her former roommate had left numerous belongings, including a drawing on the back of the front door. It was hung outside Cleaveland’s field of sight — she is 5 foot 2 — and she “never looked at it in any detail," according to the suit.

The lawsuit notes that several other people apparently never noticed the drawing. Her new roommate, however, did, and confronted Cleaveland about it, asking her if she “hated Jews.”

Cleaveland then examined the drawing, which, the suit states, depicted beheaded people with swastikas on their heads and a man hanging from a noose on a tree, which was inscribed with “God Wills It." Surrounding the tree were cloaked people, one of whom says, “We must purge the land of the Jewish disease.”

The lawsuit said Cleaveland was “horrified,” apologized and offered to destroy the drawing. “I thought that I knew my roommate that had done it pretty well,” Cleaveland said, “Like, well enough to know that she wouldn’t do something like that, so I didn’t worry about it.”

Her new roommate reported it to campus officials, who required Cleaveland to move to a new apartment again. The school also began an investigation into her conduct. That led to her temporary suspension from campus and student housing after the school later deemed she’d violated its equal opportunity policy.

The lawsuit said Westminster explained the suspension was to “take appropriate steps to protect all of its students and property” and was due to the “level a (sic) detail and threat in [the] drawing[.]”

But the drawing’s creator was never investigated and school officials knew Cleaveland didn’t draw it, the suit said. The lawsuit quotes a school official saying Cleaveland needed time to “think about what she had done” and “learn” from this experience.

Cleaveland’s attorney Amanda Mendenhall responded in the lawsuit, saying, “It is unclear exactly what Katrina ‘had done’ that required her to 'learn’ from the experience, with the exception of her failure to independently discover the discriminatory content of the drawing and remove the picture.”

The lawsuit alleges that Westminster’s reasons for its adverse actions against Cleaveland "are merely a pretext for its disapproval of and annoyance by Katrina’s disabilities, requests for reasonable accommodations, and report of discrimination to the Office of the President.”

Westminster’s harassment, retaliation and denial of accommodations for Cleaveland violated the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Fair Housing Act, the suit said. It also alleges negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katrina Cleaveland, a student at Westminster College, moves into a new apartment in Salt Lake City on Friday Dec. 13, 2019.

When Cleaveland’s attorney filed the lawsuit against Westminster, Cleaveland had been sleeping on friends’ couches for more than 100 days. The suit asks for Cleaveland to be allowed back into student housing, with appropriate accommodations for her disabilities, and for the school to throw out her equal opportunity policy violation.

In the meantime, Cleaveland’s new apartment doesn’t allow dogs, so Todd has been staying with her family in Monroe. It’s hard to be without him, Cleaveland said, but she added: “I’m kind of hesitant to go through all the [service animal] paperwork ... after everything that’s happened at Westminster.”