SAN JOSE -- San Jose State has fired 18 resident advisers but has refused to give a reason for the purge, citing confidentiality rules.

The university said the "RAs" worked in dormitories across campus and that new advisers, originally hired for the fall of 2014, have been asked to take the slots now to finish the school year.

Anything involving RAs at San Jose State is now drawing great scrutiny because of last fall's controversial bullying case, which led to a $5 million damage claim against the university. An African-American freshman -- Donald Williams Jr. -- alleges that RAs knew he was being physically, mentally and racially tormented by his four white dorm mates but that the university employees did little to help him.

Pat Lopes Harris, a university spokeswoman, said the dismissal of the student advisers had nothing to do with the bullying case. Calling the situation a "personnel matter," she said she could not legally say anything more on the dismissals announced Wednesday evening. This newspaper, however, learned the dismissals had to do with underage drinking on campus.

New advisers will be hired and trained to replace those who were released, the university said.

Hate crimes

Nevertheless, Harris said members of a special task force looking into the bullying case and preparing a report about improving campus life have contacted her and want more details about the firings. The training of resident advisers at the university has been highly discussed in meetings of a task force that is looking into the bullying case as well as ways to improve the racial climate.

If the advisers were sharper, some critics contend, they would have picked up on the many signs of racial animus in the bullying situation.

Among a number of allegations, Williams, an engineering student, said his dorm mates put a U-shaped bike lock around his neck at least twice, blocked access to his room and regularly called him racist nicknames. He also alleges they put up a Confederate flag in a common area of the dorm suite and scrawled the "N" word across a white board kept in that same area.

The situation came to light in October when Williams' parents, Nancy and Donald Williams of Santa Cruz, visited the room and saw the scrawled board and flag. Several students are now facing misdemeanor hate-crime and battery charges.

The students -- Logan Beaschler, 18, of Bakersfield; Joseph Bomgardner, 19, of Clovis; Colin Warren, 18, of Woodacre; and an unidentified juvenile -- have pleaded not guilty.

An investigation conducted for the university revealed that dorm workers had made a number of peacekeeping visits with Williams, who was 17 at the time, and his dorm mates. One adviser even got all the young men to sign an agreement as early as September that included a promise: "No more bike lock of shame."

Still, the harassment continued.

Typically, living one to a floor, the advisers get room, board and a salary. They are expected to assist and oversee the dorm lives of other students.

Catch subtleties

According to official university documents, the job is described as developing and maintaining an atmosphere "that promotes residential communities through excellence in academics and personal development opportunities for students."

For most of their initial meeting, the task force panelists had urgently discussed whether RAs were diverse enough, whether they received proper training to handle ethnic and cultural diversity and whether they are mature enough to detect percolating trouble ahead of time.

Mike Randle, a San Jose State employee and task force member warned, "Sometimes we expect students to function at a professional level and to have the wisdom of years they simply do not have."

After just three weeks of training, Randle argued, it is not certain advisers would pick up on subtleties that seem so obvious to older, more experienced individuals.

LaDoris Cordell, chairwoman of the task force, put out a statement Thursday that backed the confidential quality of the recent dismissals and wrote, "The recent staffing changes will not be among the subjects discussed at this evening's meeting."

Contact David E. Early at (408) 920-5836.