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State agency finds Hibbing school district allowed sexual discrimination

The Hibbing school district allowed sexual discrimination against students to occur, a state agency says, having failed to respond to complaints from female students who faced inappropriate questioning about sexual abuse, and other sex-based behavior by a senior administrator.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights on Friday released the results of an investigation that began about two years ago. State human rights commissioner Kevin Lindsey will meet with parents and other community members at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Lincoln Elementary School library in Hibbing, a meeting organized by the Hibbing Coalition for Safe and Accountable Schools.

After receiving complaints, the department in September 2013 began to look into allegations of sexual discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination within the 1,000-student grade 7-12 high school. The investigation took nearly a year, and included more than 60 interviews. Probable cause was found for sexual but not sexual orientation discrimination, the department reported.

Investigators found the sex-based behavior of the male administrator during the 2012-13 school year to be severe and pervasive enough, a release said, "to constitute a hostile environment that interfered with the students' access to education."

The department reported that its investigation found discrimination in the following:

• Conversations between the administrator and female students who were questioned about sexual abuse they had suffered. For example, a female student was summoned from class twice a week for a semester after the employee learned she had been molested in order to discuss it, even divulging the assault to another student on one occasion. Another young woman was asked to "intricately detail" the physical sensations she experienced during her sexual abuse, according to the state report. The report says that the administrator — who is not a trained counselor — denied discussing sexual abuse issues with students.

• The administrator advising and questioning female students on their use of birth control, their sexuality and sex lives.

• The disruption of class time to routinely call female students out of class to have such conversations unrelated to his job duties. Teachers reported a disproportionate number of females called out of class by the administrator, and usually not for disciplinary action.

• The department also found that the district failed to comply with its own harassment investigation policies, and didn't act in "good faith" when responding to reports from teachers that female students were subjected to questioning about sexual abuse they had suffered — questioning that made the students "uncomfortable" and "traumatized," a report from the department states.

The report also states that witnesses alleged the administrator asked students into his office alone to judge whether an outfit met the school's dress code. Staff and students said he routinely asked female students to turn around and bend over so he could judge skirt length.

Some students reported to the department their belief that homosexual students received more discipline than heterosexual students in relation to the school's public display of affection policy. The report says that several students alleged that the administrator's actions resulted in poor academic performance and school transfers or dropouts, after students felt they had no other option.

"I have been witness to a lot of violence and discrimination in my field of work," said Melissa Scaia, executive director of Advocates for Family Peace in Hibbing, which is leading the community meeting. Some of what happened to female students at Hibbing High School described by the human rights department "took my breath away and made me shudder," she said. "We will work tirelessly so this never happens again."

The Hibbing school district was instructed to find an expert to review its policies and procedures to ensure compliance with state and federal laws, and to get training for not only the high school administrator, but also the School Board, superintendent, other administrators and faculty and staff on discrimination, boundaries and reporting responsibilities under Minnesota law.

Previous media reports have identified the administrator as an assistant principal who was fired in August 2014. That employee requested a hearing in front of a state arbitrator, who last February ruled that the district lacked sufficient grounds to terminate him under Minnesota law and ordered that he be reinstated to his previous position.

Hibbing Superintendent Brad Johnson, who took over the top position in July, did not confirm the employment status of the administrator when reached by the News Tribune.

"Last fall the district felt it was in the best interest of our students to move on and start this school year on a positive theme and move ahead.  We have and continue to comply with the terms that were agreed to with the Human Rights Department," Johnson wrote in an e-mailed statement, questioning why the issue was being brought up again after a resolution had been reached. "The district and staff have worked hard to move forward on a positive theme and focus on teaching and learning."

Susan Nelson, president of the Hibbing teachers union, deferred to Johnson.

After the state agency finished its investigation in 2014, it began monitoring the district and the administrator, it said. It has found probable cause against the district in a second matter and expects to extend the monitoring period of the district, according to the agency.