Jerry Davich: Group of teens, parents takes discrimination claim to court
JERRY DAVICH June 1, 2013 11:32PM
Tawana Staples (far right) of Gary holds up a sign during the protest against TGIF restaurant in Hobart on Saturday June 1, 2013. The protest is in response to TGIF for turning away 8th grade students from Thea Bowman Leadership Academy who were celebrating their graduation. | Charles Mitchell~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2013 6:14AM
On the evening of June 1, 2012, Tawanna Staples’ son, Johnathan, went to TGI Fridays in Hobart along with several other teenage students from Theo Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary. They were celebrating their eighth-grade graduation.
But the celebratory mood soon faded when they were told they couldn’t dine there because the restaurant’s posted policy states that any patrons under age 21 need to be escorted by an adult after 9 p.m. The teens then waited for their parents to enter the restaurant after parking their cars.
“But when us parents showed up, we still weren’t allowed to eat there,” said Staples, of Gary.
The students and their parents didn’t dine there that night, but they didn’t forget what happened, either. They’re black, the store’s manager on duty that night was white, and the store’s late-night policy is shaded in gray depending on the color of the patrons’ skin, according to Staples and the other eight parents.
“We were publicly humiliated,” Staples told me recently. “It was embarrassing, and it was wrong.”
On Saturday, one year after the distasteful incident, they returned to TGI Fridays to protest outside its doors.
“My clients are protesting to make the community aware of what happened,” explained Elizabeth Tate, the attorney who was since been hired by the parents.
On Friday, Tate filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the store served up racial discrimination that night with a side order of rudeness.
“The parents have instructed me to file suit in an effort to hold TGI Fridays accountable for its act of discrimination,” she said. “So far the company has refused to accept responsibility.”
The lawsuit alleges that TGI Fridays is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A similar complaint was filed in November with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.
“Each plaintiff (teenage) couple was accompanied by a parent/chaperone,” the lawsuit states. “When the parents/chaperones joined the minors, the Caucasian hostess informed them that the minors would need two parents (per couple), and refused to seat them.”
“My clients have been injured. They were treated like second-class citizens,” Tate told me before she filed the lawsuit.
A TGI Fridays spokesman could not comment on the June 1, 2012, incident, nor the policy posted at the Merrillville store.
“We’re in the process of reviewing this complaint and unable to comment given the pending litigation of this matter,” the spokesman said.
Tate said other TGI Fridays stores do not have the same late-night policy. The TGI Fridays in Schererville, for example, does not have such a policy, she noted.
Staples said she and the other parents attempted a mediation of some kind with the company, but they were offered only gift cards in return.
“We didn’t accept them,” Staples said. “This is about the principle of the situation. It’s a teachable moment for our kids, too. We want them to change their policy. It’s a blatant show of racial discrimination.”
Tate added, “TGI Fridays’ offer of $50 gift cards demonstrates the company’s indifference about what happened to my clients.”
The question is, were those kids racially profiled that night and the store’s policy then wrongly used against them? Did it not matter that their parents also showed up? Or did something else take place during the exchange that we’re not privy to?
The group of parents and teens ended up dining that night at a nearby Applebee’s, where they encountered no problems or similar policies.
Another factor to consider is that an off-duty white Hobart police officer served as security that night at the restaurant, and he “intimidated” the teens and parents, the lawsuit claims. The police weren’t called and there was no police report.
“The parents are looking for an end to the parent policy and armed security guard,” Tate said.
The day after the incident, Staples complained to another TGI Fridays manager about what happened but didn’t get anywhere. The following day, she again spoke to another manager, noted as Scott McCoy in the lawsuit, who told her that only one parent or chaperone is needed per teen couple.
The lawsuit is asking for compensatory and punitive damages.
“When a civil tort is committed, money damages are the only way to try to make the wrong right,” Tate told me.
I’m obviously not black, and I’ve never been racially discriminated against, so I don’t have a personal or societal sensitivity about this issue.
However, I do understand any business implementing such a late-night policy to protect its customers from some underage patrons (of any race) who can linger, congregate, and become annoying. With graduation season upon us, this can surely become a factor at any restaurant or entertainment venue.
On a side note, a shopping mall in Illinois recently instituted a similar policy, mandating that teens be escorted by an adult. I understand that, too. But it is discriminating against teens, so to speak, not black teens or black shoppers.
Does Staples believe that a group of white kids and their parents would have been treated differently and more favorably by the TGIF management that evening?
“Definitely,” she replied, noting that the students are honor roll caliber kids. “The manager that night made a bad decision. Unfortunately, it was to discriminate.”
Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts and I’ll note them in a future column. Also feel free to join the discussion on my Facebook and other social media sites.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.