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Iowa paying $550,000 to settle harassment, discrimination claim of fired 4-H director


Jason Clayworth Courtney Crowder   | Des Moines Register
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The state of Iowa agreed to pay $550,000 Monday to settle a discrimination and harassment lawsuit filed by its statewide 4-H leader after his 2018 firing.

The settlement, which comes about two months before a jury trial was to begin, effectively ends a yearslong legal battle between John-Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, where he oversaw Iowa 4-H.

The three-member Iowa Appeal Board approved the settlement at the recommendation of Jeff Thompson, a deputy attorney general.

“It’s a resolution of a pretty hotly contested case that’s been around a bit,” Thompson said, noting concerns that the state’s cost could increase dramatically if the litigation continued.

Reached by phone Monday, Chaisson-Cárdenas, who had been the organization's first Latino state director, said he was glad to hear of the decision.

“My research, my career, and my life have always tried to foster inclusive environments that welcome the diversity of all youth and all people,” said Chaisson-Cárdenas, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa.

In his lawsuit, Chaisson-Cárdenas alleged he was repeatedly harassed and eventually fired because of his advocacy for racial equality and gender identity protections among 4-H group participants and employees.

He also claimed that his supervisors — three of whom are named as defendants — repeatedly failed to address “systemic discriminatory practices” and reprimanded him for “'overreacting' when he attempted to address racist behaviors."

“The most beautiful thing about 4-H is tradition; the most problematic part of 4-H is tradition,” Chaisson-Cárdenas told the Des Moines Register last year. "Some of those ‘traditions’ is who belongs in our program and who doesn't.”

Both the university and the three named defendants — Chad Higgins, Bob Dodds and John Lawrence, senior managers of Iowa 4-H or ISU Extension who worked closely with Chaisson-Cárdenas — deny they discriminated against Chaisson-Cárdenas “in any way,” according to a statement from university spokesperson Angie Hunt. The agreed-upon settlement also does not include an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

“The settlement allows the university to move forward in a positive way and avoid the significant disruption associated with further litigation,” the university’s statement said. “Iowa State is committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment, and Iowa 4-H Youth Development continues to strengthen its programming to reflect the diversity of our state as part of its ongoing commitment to serve all Iowa youth.”

As part of Monday's settlement, the state agreed to change the record of Chaisson-Cárdenas's termination to a voluntary resignation.

What happened before the lawsuit

Issues within Iowa 4-H bubbled up in early 2018 when Chaisson-Cárdenas drafted and posted on the state 4-H website for public review a proposed policy for accommodating transgender youth. It closely mirrored a national policy released a week earlier by the international youth organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

That guidance called for 4-H to treat all students in ways consistent with their gender identity and to allow those students “equal access” to its programs even in circumstances where families or community members raise objections.

Chaisson-Cárdenas' document drew praise but also angry responses, and led to threats of "additional action" by the Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm.

Opponents argued that the policy violated First Amendment rights by forcing 4-H participants to use pronouns that were at odds with a person’s physical appearance. Some said the guidance also violated federal law, which does not list gender identity as a protected class.

In Iowa, however, gender identity has been a protected class in the state's Civil Rights Act for a decade, meaning transgender Iowans have legal protections against discrimination in education, employment, housing and public accommodations.

Emails trickled in to Iowa 4-H in the first weeks the policy was posted, but the issue remained mostly under the radar until mid-April, when Chaisson-Cárdenas defended the policy on air with conservative WHO radio host Simon Conway.

Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization in Des Moines, issued a call to supporters soon after the radio interview to protest what he called the document’s “radical” approach. He said he saw it as allowing “a man who claims the female gender (without any medical procedure or legal verification) to sleep in the girls' hotel rooms” on 4-H trips.

Chaisson-Cárdenas was fired a few months later, just before the start of the Iowa State Fair, the focal point of the 4-H calendar. Brought in to help diversify the organization, he had led the group for four years. 

A Register investigation later revealed that President Donald Trump's administration pushed the national organization as well as the Iowa chapter to withdraw the policy. The investigation also revealed a history of allegations of systemic racism and cultural discrimination within the Iowa branch of the group.

“It's a large organization,” Lawrence said last year when presented with the Register's findings. “We have a lot of great staff and volunteers doing wonderful things for all Iowans. But I would agree that there are some challenges that come up from time to time. You've found many of those, and we continue to work on those.”

In place of the controversial transgender policy, the Iowa state chapter adopted the national diversity campaign titled “4-H Grows: A Promise to America’s Kids."

Unlike the policy posted in 2018, the document does not give specific guidance about how to accommodate transgender members.

Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, an advocacy organization focused on improving the lives of LGBTQ youth, said that in the wake of Chaisson-Cárdenas’ firing, several students expressed concern about joining 4-H.

Monson said that while LGBTQ youth still face serious discrimination and bullying in Iowa, the Civil Rights Act gives victims an avenue to file complaints and seek justice — as it did in this case.

“Today’s settlement is important because it reaffirmed that discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and race is illegal in the state of Iowa," he said. "It costs money when individuals discriminate against any population, including trans individuals, and it should simply not be allowed to happen in the state of Iowa."

Another settlement approved

The Iowa Appeal Board on Monday also approved a $4.5 million payment to the family of Dawn Ecklund, 34, of Wapello. She died in August 2019 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City after complications associated with a laparoscopic hysterectomy.