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Student files $5 million claim against California university over racial hazing

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An African-American teenager who authorities say was the target of racial hazing on a California university campus last fall filed a claim for $5 million in damages against the school on Monday, his attorney said.

Officials with San Jose State University failed to protect the teen from racist pranks and remarks by white students with whom he shared a dormitory suite, according to the claim filed internally through the university system by attorney Carl E. Douglas.

"When there can be this level of bullying at San Jose State University, a bastion of progressive thought, that should be a bellwether for everyone nationwide," Douglas told Reuters.

"I want there to be a conversation started by the filing of this claim... there are issues of racial intolerance, of bullying and of harassment running rampant in universities and colleges across this nation," he said.

University spokeswoman Patricia Harris declined to comment on the claim, which named as defendants the university, its president Mohammad Qayoumi, a school housing adviser and others.

Authorities said four white roommates taunted and harassed the student, who was 17 at the time, by displaying Nazi imagery and a Confederate flag in their dormitory and attempting to hang a U-shape bicycle lock around his neck.

The roommates, also students, referred to him as "three-fifths" or "fraction," the claim said, in an apparent slur relating to the fact African American slaves counted as only three fifths of a person under an 18th century agreement between U.S. states to determine state population sizes.

The roommates barricaded him in his room, and threatened him with a golf club when they tried to locate a missing pet goldfish, the claim said. The harassment lasted from at least September 23 to October 31, 2013, it said.

African American slaves counted as three fifths of a person in a compromise reached in 1787 between southern states and northern states to determine a state's population for constitutional purposes.

Douglas said he planned to sue the university if it rejected the claim, filed with the California State University Office of Risk Management.

At least one school employee, a student housing assistant, appeared to know about the bullying more than a month before the teen's parents complained to campus officials and put an end to it, the claim said.

By failing to provide the teen with equal housing and investigate the bullying sooner, the university and its employees violated his civil rights and breached multiple contracts he had with the school, the claim said.

Three of the teen's former roommates, Colin Warren, 18, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, and Logan Beaschler, 18, face misdemeanor hate crime and battery charges in connection with allegations of tormenting the teen.

They have all pleaded not guilty at Santa Clara County Superior Court and remain suspended from the school. A fourth defendant is a minor, and details about his case have not been made public.

After reports of the weeks-long harassment came to light in November, students staged campus protests, and a leader with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for the accused boys to be charged with felony crimes.

The school's president has apologized and launched multiple investigations, and a university-appointed task force led by a retired superior court judge is set to make recommendations next month about policies and procedures relating to the incident.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)

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