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13 graduates sue UMD, alleging fraud

A student enters the University of Minnesota Duluth's education building in spring, 2015. (file photo / News Tribune)

A group of former University of Minnesota Duluth education students filed a lawsuit against the university Thursday, alleging fraud and misrepresentation by UMD in connection with compliance problems in its integrated elementary and special education program.

The 13 graduates are seeking monetary damages after they failed to receive standard teaching licenses upon graduating from the program last December because the program was not in compliance with the Minnesota Board of Teaching. They further claim that UMD withheld information about the problem from students, and state that remedial measures taken by the university after the fact were “ineffective” and in some cases “exacerbated the damage” already done.

“They’re alleging that the University of Minnesota defrauded them. They withheld information that they knew that the program was not accredited and didn’t tell them that information until after they graduated,” said Bill Sand, an attorney representing the 13 UMD alumni.

In response to the lawsuit, UMD Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Andrea Schokker on Thursday night issued a statement saying that “all students that have graduated from UMD in the education programs who qualified for licensure have been granted full licensure. All program updates have been provided to the Board of Teaching. Throughout this process UMD has kept students informed of the situation.”

As reported in the News Tribune earlier this year, UMD needed to meet a December deadline so its unique dual-licensure integrated elementary and special education (IESE) program — started in 2011, and part of the College of Education and Human Service Professions — could be approved by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Rules for special education licensure changed in 2012, and such programs were to be resubmitted to the teaching board to show they were meeting the new standards.

UMD submitted its paperwork in December but not in time for a January meeting of the teaching board. It therefore faced a months-long review process to regain state approval — what the lawsuit refers to as “accreditation” — leaving 24 December graduates unable to obtain a standard license.

Instead, the affected students were given the opportunity to obtain temporary licenses if they had a job offer.

"This situation is unacceptable and we take full responsibility," Schokker wrote in March in a letter to students of the program. She stressed in March that "the issue is not with the program, but rather with a lapse in ensuring we followed proper documentation with the Board of Teaching."

The Minnesota Board of Teaching in April also suspended the college's ability to offer teacher preparation programs after the discovery that UMD had submitted inaccurate information about them. It was granted conditional approval to continue operating the programs while they're under review — a probation of sorts until next April — but couldn't enroll new students in most teacher preparation programs. The college as a whole has retained its national accreditation.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Hennepin County District Court against UMD as well as individual defendants to be named after further investigation, claims that UMD told the students that the IESE program “was accredited and would result in licensure in the state of Minnesota. At no time were plaintiffs told that the IESE program was not accredited. (UMD) withheld the accreditation status from the plaintiffs. It was not until after graduation that the plaintiffs learned the scope of (UMD’s) misconduct” from a News Tribune story.

The lawsuit alleges that UMD failed to take action to keep the IESE program in compliance despite being notified by the state teaching board of issues “on multiple occasions.” It also claims that not only did UMD fail to disclose the accreditation status to the 13 students when it learned of the problem, but it also “continued making representations to the plaintiffs that the IESE was accredited and would result in licensure in the state of Minnesota.”

The lawsuit claims that for those students who had job offers and were able to pursue a temporary teaching license, “complex administrative procedures … resulted in further delays and uncertainty.” It claims that UMD officials “have refused to provide the plaintiffs with any information and have responded to each of them as if resolution of their licensing were a nuisance.”

“Several plaintiffs who had pending career offers lost those (because of licensing delays). Other plaintiffs lost access to benefits and seniority/tenure privileges for the school year because of their license uncertainty. Still other plaintiffs were not able to assume their professional positions by specific deadlines. All plaintiffs lost income and professional opportunities because of these delays,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit claims seven counts against UMD: fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, reckless misrepresentation, misrepresentation by omission, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract and negligence.

The alumni are filing the lawsuit now because they’re still trying to overcome the licensure issues, Sand said. Additionally, he said they’ve spent the past few months sifting through documents in an attempt to determine whether UMD could legally be held accountable.

“The fact that they have been defrauded like this, it’s tough to be made whole with what’s already happened. They’ve had to sit in job interviews and have employers tell them that the reason they’re not getting the job is that they don’t have an accredited degree, they don’t have a license. That humiliation will never go away and that’s harm to their reputation,” Sand said. “We’re still delving through issues as to their licenses right now. … It’s still a mess, is the best term to use.”   

The lawsuit is in the early stages and UMD now will be given a chance to respond to the 13 graduates’ allegations, he said.

Read the complete lawsuit here.