Venida Chenault, far left, serves as president of Haskell Indian Nations University, a federally-funded institution in Lawrence, Kansas. Standing next to her is John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Both are seen at Haskell University's spring commencement ceremony on May 18, 2018. Photo: White Cone Production

Investigation finds 'abusive' environment at Haskell University

Culture of fear traced to President Venida Chenault
Crimes, including sexual assault, went unreported at tribal college
By Kevin Abourezk

Following publication of Indianz.Com's story, the Bureau of Indian Education on Tuesday announced Dan Wildcat will be serving as the "acting" president of Haskell Indian Nations University. Venida Chenault has been "detailed" to another position within the BIE, according to an email sent on a campus-wide list group. She will be working on a "special assignment" for the BIE. Indianz.Com has asked for further information from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A report published Friday by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of the Interior found that officials at Haskell Indian Nations University mishandled misconduct complaints, underrepresented crime statistics in 2014 and 2015 and improperly influenced the appointment of a staff member’s family member to a high-level position.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) also found that some Haskell employees felt bullied and intimidated by Haskell President Venida Chenault. The OIG’s investigation was the result of allegations of mismanagement from students, faculty and administrators against Chenault, who has led the university since 2014.

The OIG said its investigation revealed allegations that a Haskell instructor had sexually assaulted a student, a matter that the agency referred to local police in Lawrence, Kansas. The department planned to submit its report to the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The department found no evidence for at least two complaints that it received, including allegations that Chenault had showed favoritism to an employee and that a university employee had improperly purchased computers through a Title III grant.

Chenault, who is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, did not respond to a request for comment by Indianz.Com.

The allegations that the OIG managed to substantiate included:

· Mishandled complaints of misconduct. The OIG found the university didn’t follow its own guidelines for handling criminal or administrative student and faculty misconduct complaints. The university doesn’t have advocates trained to respond to misconduct complaints, and staff that should have received training for handling such complaints lacked that training.

· The university failed to issue timely warnings as required when sexual assaults occurred on campus, including following a November 2014 on-campus sexual assault of a student. One employee told the OIG that Chenault refused her recommendation to issue a warning following the assault, saying “I don’t want to do that.”

· Chenault admitted she treated a sexual assault allegation differently because the victim was male and the university mishandled allegations that an instructor had raped a student, thereby likely re-victimizing the student. She also described how a Haskell security guard and resident assistant had failed to document and report a domestic violence incident.

· At least 10 university employees told the OIG they felt bullied and intimidated by Chenault. However, the OIG found no evidence that Chenault had taken adverse action against those employees. A high-ranking administrator said Chenault would lash out at her during meetings and she described the president as “highly manipulative” and “abusive.” Another employee said Chenault made disparaging remarks about her and threatened to terminate her employment. And a student told the OIG that Chenault and her family member terminated his access to Haskell’s online course management system, impeding his ability to complete assignments, after he filed several grievances against the university. In response to those complaints, Chenault told the OIG that she blamed a lack of communication between her and some employees and an unwillingness to change by some employees for the negative perceptions of her. “I’m sorry that people have those perceptions and, you know, don’t have the wherewithal to just say that.” She denied intentionally intimidating people or threatening employees’ jobs.

· Chenault’s presence in a meeting where her family member was being considered for a high-level position. The family member’s immediate supervisor told the OIG that Chenault told her to select the family members for the position, though Chenault and the university’s human resources director denied that allegation. All three individuals agreed that Chenault’s presence during the meeting unfairly influenced the selection of her family member for the position.

Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. Photo: Gen. Quon

The OIG also found evidence that Haskell officials underrepresented crime incidents at the university over a two-year period. The department found the university underreported crime in 2014 and 2015 – the first two years that Chenault was president. Haskell is required to publicly disclose campus crimes, including those handles by outside law enforcement agencies.

The OIG found 19 reportable incidents of crime, including sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, stalking and harassment, occurred at Haskell in 2014 and 32 occurred the next year. By contrast, the university only reported 3 crimes in 2014 and 5 in 2015.

The Haskell employee responsible for compiling those statistics admitted that she had included only high-profile crimes in her report. The employee claimed Chenault had told her to only include crimes that resulted in arrests.

The employee told the OIG, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m scared to death, you know. I mean, I need this job.”

Another Haskell employee confirmed the employee’s statements, saying Chenault used fear and intimidation to limit exposure of criminal incidents.

“I think everyone, you know, they’re afraid for their jobs at Haskell, because you’re either on (Chenault’s) side or you’re not,” one employee said.

Haskell Indian Nations University misreported crimes on its campus in Lawrence, Kansas, according to the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Source: Investigation of Misconduct Allegations at Haskell Indian Nations University

Chenault told the OIG she didn’t know that all reported offenses must be included in the university’s annual report and denied ever directing an employee to omit certain statistics because of concerns those statistics could negatively affect university funding.

Aaron Circle Bear, 30, a former Haskell student and citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told Indianz.Com that he was the student cited in the OIG report who suffered retaliation by Chenault and her family member after he filed grievances against Haskell.

A former BIA law enforcement officer, Circle Bear began taking classes at Haskell in 2014 but was expelled in late 2016 after he failed an algebra course. But he said he documented every grade he ever received in the course and said he should have gotten a B in the course, rather than an F.

He said he believes his grade in the class was manipulated as an act of retaliation following his decision to submit complaints to the OIG about Haskell. He said the university expelled him just a month after he spoke to OIG investigators who were responding to his complaints.

His complaints included allegations of black mold in dorm rooms, manipulation of crime statistics and fear and intimidation by top-level administrators against employees and students.

“They were retaliating against their students for speaking up about the wrongs that were being done,” Circle Bear said.

He said he hopes BIA and BIE officials will take action against Haskell officials for their treatment of staff and students and mishandling of crime statistics.

“I just hope that Washington D.C., they listen to this and they act accordingly and swiftly with this,” he said. “Change needs to happen.”

He said he plans to continue to fight to get back into Haskell to finish his nursing degree.

“They’re making it extremely difficult,” he said. “I’m not giving up. I’m going to go back to school.”

Office of Inspector General Reports
Investigation of Misconduct Allegations at Haskell Indian Nations University (November 16, 2018)
Investigation Reveals Absence of Clear Boundaries Between Bureau of Indian Education Post-Secondary Educational Institution and Nonprofit Corporation (October 15, 2018)
Employees Believed BIE Director’s Presence During Fiscal Monitoring Review at Former School Was Improper (August 27, 2018)
BIE Official Allegedly Inflated Gifted Program Enrollment and Student Attendance Numbers at Former School (August 16, 2018)

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