CEDAR CITY – An investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently found the Iron County School District failed to protect eight female employees from years of ongoing verbal and sexual harassment – despite the fact district administrators knew it was going on.
The EEOC’s findings have been turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice for review.
The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed with the EEOC last year by the eight women, following a criminal case involving Samuel Naim El-Halta, who was convicted on seven counts of sexual battery and two counts of accessing pornographic material on school property, all class A misdemeanors.
El-Halta was employed at the time as a counselor at Cedar Middle School and worked with all of the women, who were counselors, secretaries and aides.
According to the charging documents filed in 5th District Court in the criminal case, El-Halta had inappropriately touched the women on numerous occasions.
“This touching was unsolicited and unwanted by (the women),” the documents state.
The defendant also made offensive and explicit sexually suggestive comments, including repeated requests for sexual favors.
The women stated in their EEOC complaint, El-Halta subjected them to both physical and verbal sexual harassment for years, beginning in 2007.
In 2012, the women allege they notified their administrators and the school district, but their pleas for help were ignored until the fall of 2014 when the district “finally” began to investigate.
Still, El-Halta’s behavior went unchecked as there was no discipline imposed against him, the complaint states.
“The district did not provide any information on what constitutes sexual harassment, how to report it, who to report it to, what procedures are in place to protect the victims and what procedure the victims need to go through to have it stopped,” one of the victims told Cedar City News.
The complaint alleges the women were retaliated against by the administrators at both the middle school and the district level in various ways, including allowing El-Halta to continue to work with them during the ongoing investigation. School administrators also disclosed the names of the complainants to El-Halta, the women stated.
During this time, the women maintain the school district and the middle school did not provide any sexual harassment training and reporting procedures except for one paragraph in the employee handbook.
According to the EEOC’s “Determination Letter,” the women had complained to the school principal and vice principal but “nothing was done.”
“After having endured this harassment for years the sexual harassment stopped in November 2015 after the district office finally conducted an investigation,” the letter states.
The EEOC found the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to protect the women from “years of ongoing verbal and physical sexual harassment, even though they had knowledge of the ongoing illegal harassment.”
The EEOC’s findings have been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice, which can either issue a notice giving the victims the right to sue the school district in federal court or join with them in a lawsuit against the school district. Scott Burns, one of three attorneys representing the victims, said the Justice Department only aligns itself in a lawsuit of this type about 3 percent of the time.
“They only do it when the facts of a case are egregious, have multiple (alleged) victims and would send a message to a national audience,” Burns said. “This case has all those elements, and the facts of this case are so egregious, I think the DOJ just might decide to join in on this one.”
Burns said he and his colleagues working this case plan to file a complaint with the federal government but did not elaborate on what other plans the group has from there or what financial demands are being made.
Iron County School District emailed the following prepared statement from Iron County School District Superintendent Shannon Dulaney to Cedar City News:
This matter is now in the hands of Utah State Risk Management and district legal counsel because of impending litigation. All responses and statements will need to come through the attorneys and, pursuant to their request, I am not at liberty to respond.
The school district’s attorney, Blake Ostler, was not available for questions at the time this article was published.
Regarding the criminal charges, El-Halta pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors and was sentenced to 24-months bench probation, an unsupervised probation where the person has to abide by certain court conditions but doesn’t have to report to a parole or probation officer. He was ordered to pay a fine of $750 with a court security fee of $387 and to obtain a psychological evaluation.
He was also ordered to serve 15 consecutive weekends in the Juab County Jail beginning March 4. Later the dates were changed to begin the weekend of May 6.
In a recent letter to the court, El-Halta requested to change one of his weekends in July, asking instead to be allowed to do his time during the week.
In the same letter, El-Halta requested “good time” and to trade some of his weekends and be allowed to do community service.
“My goal is to be able to finish with my sentence and move forward with my life as a law abiding citizen. If one of the goals of incarceration is rehabilitation, than I can strongly say that I have met that goal,” El-Halta’s letter states.
In the letter, he then asked the judge to give him a reprieve from having to register as a sex offender for the next 12 years.
El-Halta said the only reason he pleaded guilty is because the prosecutor from the Washington County Attorney’s Office threatened to charge him with felonies if he did not admit guilt to all of the misdemeanor charges he was facing. (See Ed. Note.)
El-Halta claimed that during the negotiation of the plea agreement, his attorney – then Jim Park – told him he would not have to register with the sex offender registry if he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors.
“It was an extreme shock, an horrific moment when I received a letter explaining that due to the change of the law, as a result of my plea deal and the number of counts of my charges that I have to now register,” El-Halta stated in his letter.
In addition, El-Halta asked the court to have his case reviewed or considered again since he feels “strongly that even when looking at the claims from the alleged victims, that not all of their claims are equivalent to the class A misdemeanors that were brought against me.”
El-Halta said the idea of registering as a sex offender makes him feel “hopeless” and that it will ruin him by preventing him from gaining meaningful employment and in turn providing adequate support for his family.
Court records show the correspondence from 5th District Judge Keith C. Barnes in response to El-Halta’s letter is not public.
Ed. Note: El-Halta was prosecuted by the Washington County Attorney’s Office because the Iron County Attorney, Scott Garrett, has a brother employed by the Iron County School District, and it was viewed as a conflict of interest.
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