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Age discrimination complaint under review at Dickinson State University

Dickinson State University business major Tyler Houston stands on the university's campus May 7. Houston said DSU discriminated against him because he's a non-traditional student, although state law indicates it could be a legal practice.

A Dickinson State University student who says he was discriminated against because of his age has filed an official complaint with the school.

An Illinois native and current DSU business major, Tyler Houston, 29, said he took a course at the school in hopes of receiving an offer to become a resident advisor, but was eventually told he wasn't chosen because of his status as a non-traditional student.

"I went through all the steps, did all the proper procedures and assignments," Houston said. "At the end, I went to my interview and, at the end of my interview, I asked the panel if there were any concerns with my candidacy for the position. I was told that the only concern about me was my age."

Despite the fact that RAs are required to be on-call at certain times and be available for a host of residential leadership roles, the position is coveted by some because of its perks, including a waiver for housing fees and university meal plan. University spokesperson Marie Moe said in an email Wednesday that 23 applicants were considered for 17 open RA positions for the 2013-14 school year.

Houston was one of the six to not receive an offer of employment. All 17 who were offered accepted, according to university records.

"Your room and board are paid for as an RA," Houston said. "I moved out of the dorms (as of May 11) and into an apartment through the alumni foundation. It's considerably more for an apartment, but, at this point, I no longer feel comfortable living (at the dorms)."

Under provision 34-01-17 of the North Dakota Century Code, no business may "refuse to hire any individual solely upon the ground of age," providing the position does not require an age distinction.

When considering the specific situation Houston alleges, however, North Dakota Commissioner of Labor Tony Weiler said the provision would not apply based on state law.

"In North Dakota, you can't discriminate against someone with regard to employment if they're over the age of 40," Weiler said Monday. "But if you're not of that age, that's different. In that case, the person wouldn't be in a protected category and it would be fine to discriminate against someone based on age."

Houston said Cody Burggraff, a resident director for on-campus housing, was the individual who told him he was too old to be an RA during his interview process. When reached, Burggraff and DSU director of residential life Lydia Dworshak declined to comment for this story.

University spokesperson Marie Moe said in an email Wednesday that Houston's complaint will get a "thorough and complete review" in accordance with DSU's policy on harassment.

"Tyler is a student and a valued member of our campus community," Moe said. "Students are the heart and soul of our university and we take their concerns seriously. Tyler has initiated the process that will allow a full investigation into the circumstances and we will afford him the due process that he deserves."

DSU is an equal opportunity institution that "does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, religion or disability in its employment practices," according to a notice of discrimination in the university's written policy on harassment.

With results of DSU's internal investigation pending, it remains to be determined whether Houston -- who came to North Dakota to work as a truck driver before eventually enrolling at DSU -- was denied solely based on his age and, if so, if the university was within its rights doing so.

"I definitely feel like I was discriminated against," Houston said. "No matter how they tried to explain it away, it was nothing more than discrimination based on my age. I'm not in this for money, I just want attention to be brought to this situation and for people to know this happens. I don't think it's right at all."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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