A Black man who is a former Clark County Fire District 6 firefighter alleges a white recruit sneaked up behind him, placed a noose around his neck and acted out a lynching during a knot-tying training in June 2022.
The allegation comes in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against the recruit, the fire district and district administrators, including Fire Chief Kristan Maurer, Chief David Russel, Assistant Chief David Schmitt and Capt. Eric Simukka.
Efforts to reach the recruit were unsuccessful Thursday, so The Columbian is not naming him at this time.
Vancouver attorney Angus Lee filed the complaint on behalf of 41-year-old Elijah Page in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. Among its claims, it alleges a hostile work environment, racial discrimination and violation of Page’s First Amendment rights.
Page and his attorney further argue the incident amounts to fourth-degree assault and a felony hate crime under state law.
“Clark County Fire District 6 is aware of the allegations made against it in a recently filed lawsuit. The district denies the allegations made against it and remains steadfast in its commitment to improving diversity and inclusivity in our profession. The individual who committed the act in question is no longer employed with the district,” fire district spokesman David Schmitke wrote in an email Thursday.
Page’s complaint contends several recruits from his class witnessed the incident but did nothing; when it was reported to administrators, they downplayed the severity.
The incident was not reported as a hate crime to law enforcement, the complaint alleges, and district administrators tried to cover it up to avoid negative attention ahead of an August 2022 vote on a tax levy. The levy passed.
Page further alleges administrators ordered him and other witnesses not to report the incident or talk about it outside the fire station, in violation of district policies.
“I dedicated my life to public service, only to be betrayed in the most humiliating way possible. This has put tremendous stress on me and my family and has carried a very high emotional toll,” Page said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.
Page transitioned from a career with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to firefighting for Fire District 6 in April 2022, the complaint states.
At a classroom training in June 2022, new hires were given ropes, like those used for rock climbing or rappelling, to practice tying knots. During a break, Page called his wife. While Page was speaking with her, one of the recruits allegedly fashioned his rope into a noose, came up behind Page, threw the noose over Page’s head and tightened it around his neck, according to the complaint.
Page quickly pulled the noose from his neck and told the recruit he was “deeply offended.” Some of their classmates who witnessed the incident apparently viewed it as a joke, the complaint states.
The complaint says Page was the only person of color in his recruiting class.
District administration was informed of the incident the same day, and Maurer called the district’s board chairman to tell him, the complaint says. Administration conducted an internal investigation that included witness statements, some of which were submitted with Page’s complaint.
An administrator read the recruit Garrity warnings, similar to Miranda rights, before interviewing him, and he allegedly admitted to the incident, according to the complaint.
However, instead of firing the recruit for cause, he was terminated for failing to complete his probationary period. His separation letter did not mention the incident.
Maurer allegedly assured the recruit she would not share the incident with future potential employers, the complaint states. None of the recruits were disciplined for failing to intervene.
Page finished his training but left the district not long after, citing unsafe conditions and a hostile work environment.
“No reasonable person should be expected to work in an environment that mandates the victim of a hate crime suffer in silence,” Lee said.
In all, the complaint cites 15 claims and seeks monetary damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
Fire District 6 serves unincorporated suburbs north of Vancouver, including Hazel Dell, Felida and Salmon Creek.