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Cops and Courts

Gibson's Bakery v. Oberlin College: Meredith Raimondo testifies she didn't have control over students

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    Meredith Raimondo, left, vice president and dean of students, listens to attorney Matthew Nakon, an attorney representing Oberlin College, cross-examine a witness Tuesday.

    KRISTIN BAUER / CHRONICLE

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    Attorney Matthew Nakon, representing Oberlin College, completes his cross-examination of a witness on Tuesday morning, May 14.

    KRISTIN BAUER/ CHRONICLE

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ELYRIA — Meredith Raimondo repeatedly testified Tuesday that she did not have control over Oberlin College students during the 2016 protests in front of Gibson’s Bakery.

However, an attorney for the bakery questioned Oberlin College’s vice president and dean of students on several incidents that he believed showed that she did have “control and influence” over the students and could have stopped the protests.

Raimondo took the stand for a second day Tuesday as an adverse witness, meaning her testimony was compelled by subpoena and not voluntary, in the civil trial between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College. Gibson’s sued the college and Raimondo for libel, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass in 2017. The bakery also is suing the college for negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

Lee Plakas, the lead attorney for Gibson’s Bakery in the case, repeatedly insinuated that Raimondo could have influenced the students who protested in front of the bakery Nov. 10 and 11, 2016, due to her role as dean of students.

Raimondo, however, disagreed repeatedly with that statement, saying she has “a leadership role” but wouldn’t say she has “control of the students.”

Plakas highlighted incidents that he contended prove Raimondo did have control over the actions of students.

One of them was an email Raimondo sent to Oberlin College Student Senate members after the second day of protests saying she would “encourage folks not to go to the protests downtown (Nov. 12).” Raimondo also said in the message that at that point, the demonstrations were “driving Gibson’s business,” which Plakas took to mean “you (Raimondo) weren’t happy that there was business now being given to Gibson’s for people who supported them in response (to the protests).”

Plakas noted students did not protest Nov. 12.

Another example he gave of Raimondo’s influence regarded the student senate resolution that urged students to boycott the bakery because it had “a history of racial profiling.”

The resolution hung in Wilder Hall at the college for a year after the student senate passed it, Plakas said. After Gibson’s filed the lawsuit against the college, Raimondo asked the students to take it down, Plakas said.

“Sir, I don’t have control over the students,” Raimondo said. “I would not agree with that.”

“After you asked them to take it down, they took it down,” Plakas said.

“I know they took it down,” Raimondo said. “I can’t speak as to why they chose to do that.”

What other reason would the students have to remove it, Plakas asked.

“I don’t have any information about their thinking,” Raimondo said.

The testimony later shifted to Raimondo’s interactions with other administrators at the college and whether their “ill-will” or “malice” toward Gibson’s caused them to take sides in the protests and the aftermath.

Emails and text messages shared among them played a big factor in the testimony.

Plakas read the jury an email from Oberlin College Vice President of Communications Ben Jones.

“We should just give all business to Leo at IGA. Better donuts anyway,” Jones’ email said. “All these idiots complaining about the college hurting a ‘small local business’ are conveniently leaving out their massive (relative to the town) conglomerate and price gouging on rents and parking and the predatory behavior towards most other local business. (Expletive) ’em.

“I wanted this to work out in a restorative way with shared responsibility (albeit generous on our part) because it’s what’s best for the town. But they’ve made their bed now…”

Tita Reed, special assistant to the president for community and government relations for the college, then replied in the email thread: “100%!!!!!!!”

Plakas asked Raimondo if, after seeing the emails, she told them that their responses were inappropriate and asked whether she had tried to “de-escalate” the situation.

“I wouldn’t have considered that an appropriate response,” Raimondo said.

“You don’t think it would be appropriate to de-escalate?” Plakas asked.

“No, I did not,” she said.

Plakas then circled back to the issue of whether Raimondo controlled the students by saying that she actually felt she controlled them as if they were on a leash.

“I assure you I did not,” Raimondo said.

That’s when Plakas read an exchange between Raimondo and other administrators about Roger Copeland, a professor with the college who had been critical of Oberlin College’s handling of the protests at Gibson’s.

“(Expletive) him,” Raimondo said in a text message. “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”

Plakas asked Raimondo if she felt that had been an appropriate response.

“I regret that the jury has seen that unprofessional language,” Raimondo said. “This is a private text message exchange between friends, and sometimes, in my private communications, I speak that way. I do not speak that way in public or professional contexts.”

The rift between the bakery and the college began in 2016 when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn Gibson, who is the son of the bakery’s owner, David Gibson. Allyn Gibson followed the student out of the store and the two got into a physical altercation.

Two other students got involved, and police have said when they arrived the three students were hitting Allyn Gibson while he was on the ground.

Allyn Gibson is white and the students are black, and the incident became racially charged. All three students pleaded guilty in August to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.

Testimony is set to resume 9 a.m. today.

Contact Scott Mahoney at (440) 329-7146 or smahoney@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMahoneyCT.

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