- D'Andra Mull: Student leader, plaintiff.
In her first three years at Kent State, D'Andra Mull stacked her résumé with the thankless jobs that tend to be the bane and bounty of the young and responsible. President of her sorority. Head of the Black Greek Council. Senator in student government.
By last spring, those efforts had paid off. In March, she was elected executive director of the undergraduate student senate, the top post in student government. Last fall, she was named homecoming queen. Her co-royal: Demetric Shaw, a star on the basketball team.
But as her senior year winds down, Mull's tenure at Kent has proven to be more SmackDown! than sweet reward. Her honesty has been questioned by the student newspaper, her competency assailed by her constituents. All of which has taken its toll: She was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She contemplated quitting.
"Mentally, it really got to me," she admits. "At some point, I thought the publicity was malicious."
Outside the rolling hills of Kent's main campus, it might seem like trivial stuff. The insular dramas of college politics and student journalism tend to be a half-step removed from the tensions of a pubescent slumber party -- as nasty as they are insignificant. And they remained so until January, when Mull filed suit against the school, the student newspaper, and several students and faculty. The charges: negligence, libel, slander, and "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
All because somebody blabbed about her grades.
"This woman was intentionally wronged by a person who was a faculty member and students who worked at the newspaper," says Mull's attorney, Leonard Lancaster. "They intentionally went out to hurt this lady, and they did."
It all started with politics, of course. Last spring, Mull announced her candidacy for the executive director post. Though she was running unopposed, The Daily Kent Stater asked her to provide information -- including her grade point average -- for a profile.
A few weeks later, in early March, the paper published its election guide, which included thumbnail biographies of each candidate. Mull's was typically vapid, identifying her as a political science and criminal justice major, whose platform was "to first find out what students want before I say what I want done." The GPA she provided the paper: 2.92.
Controversy soon followed. On the second day of the three-day voting period, The Stater reported that Mull's GPA was actually 2.68, according to the school's computer system.
Mull maintained the lower figure was wrong. But that wasn't the primary source of her fury. "I am appalled as a student that a staff member, a member of the Kent State University community, would report to a campus newspaper what they propose to be my GPA," she told the paper. "My federal rights as a student have been violated."
According to federal law, publicly funded schools like Kent State can't reveal a student's grades without written permission. Even so, few thought the matter would end up in court. The discrepancy amounted to less than a quarter of a grade point, and at a working-class school like Kent, a mid-C average isn't akin to a scarlet letter. Nor did the revelation alter the election. Mull won easily, despite drawing a last-minute opponent.
"It just wasn't that big of a deal," says Joe Dangelo, who served on student senate with Mull last year. "Overall, most students don't vote or follow [student government] closely."
Mull should know that better than anyone. She captured her landslide victory with 629 votes -- on a campus of more than 20,000 students.
Yet few familiar with the whole mess believe the lawsuit has anything to do with upholding privacy rights. It's about settling scores with The Stater.
For more than a year, Mull has been a favorite target for the paper. Last October, when she was busted by Kent State cops for blowing through a stop sign and driving with a suspended license, the paper mocked her lawlessness by giving her a snide "cheers" for "following the models set by Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Sanger" in "showing us that we do not need to follow unjust laws." (Mull paid a fine but retained her license.)
A month later, when an editorial chided Mull's administration for getting little accomplished during its first term, it noted that part of the problem might be that Mull "has continued her practice of screwing up and blaming other people."
Says Lancaster: "The Kent Stater doesn't let up on this woman."
Mull's personality hasn't helped. Though she's passionate about serving students, say colleagues, she can be thin-skinned, mystified by the ways of the media and the assumption that politicians, even at the most inconsequential level, are held to a different standard.
"I just think D'Andra doesn't understand what public service is all about," says Dangelo, who endorsed her opponent. "She doesn't understand that, to be a public servant, you are in the public eye. You kinda gotta give up little things."
But to Mull, those little things aren't so little. "Everybody wants to throw out the public official thing," she says. "There's a certain level of privacy to be expected for anyone. I understand you've got to sell papers, but not to the point where you've got to kill someone's character."
Editors at The Stater have long denied singling out Mull for scrutiny. "Some people felt [Mull] was being treated unfairly, that she's a student leader, but that the student part comes before the leader part," concedes current editor Rheka Sharma, who wasn't involved in the GPA controversy. But, she adds, "With student leaders in general, there is a larger issue about whether or not they're telling us the truth."
Strangely enough, The Stater is the one party that may walk away from the scrap unscathed. That's because the U.S. Department of Education, which investigates violations of students' privacy, has said that student newspapers aren't liable under the privacy statute -- a fact that didn't escape the Ohio Court of Claims. Less than a week after Mull's suit was filed, The Stater and its staff were dismissed as defendants.
The university hasn't been so lucky. In a move that doesn't bode well for the school's legal standing, Willis Walker, the school's chief legal counsel, wrote a letter to Stater editors last spring chiding the paper for publishing its exposé, essentially confirming that Mull's rights had been violated. In short: It may be a productive year for Mull after all, though not in the way she expected.