CEDAR CITY – Eight Cedar Middle School employees have collectively received $340,000 as part of a lawsuit settlement with Iron County School District in addition to recovering their attorney’s fees and costs.
The settlement came after the female employees filed a federal civil rights action against the district alleging that school officials failed to protect them from sexual harassment by a colleague, thereby forcing them to remain in a hostile work environment for several years.
Also listed as defendants were: Principal Kendall Benson, Vice Principal Trent Nielsen and school counselor Samuel El-Halta. All three men were employees working at Cedar Middle School at the time. Benson has since retired and El-Halta was terminated following a police investigation that later led to a criminal conviction in 2016. Nielsen, who is still employed with the district, now works at Cedar Middle School.
The eight Jane Does, now listed by name in court documents, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court Sept. 19, 2016. They include the following: Lisa Allred, Vickie Bolton, Aleese Cardon, Jarica Hunter, Anita Jolley, Kasey Reese, Regina Weeks and Ashley Whiting.
Plaintiffs in this type of a case often remain confidential, listed only as Jane Does. However, the attorneys for the women chose to list their clients’ names after their identities became known during the criminal case against El-Halta, plaintiffs’ attorney Scott Burns previously told Cedar City News.
The settlement agreement provided to Cedar City News via a records request shows a total of $340,000 paid out, with each of the plaintiffs receiving $40,000 except for Ashley Whiting who received $60,000.
The legal documents signed Feb. 9 also state that Burns and his co-counsel Peter Stirba received $200,000 in attorney fees.
In addition, the agreement commits the school district to providing sexual harassment training for all employees every other year and annual training for district administrators including the administration within each school – training that the women’s attorney said took 17 years to bring in.
“My clients were never about the money, what they were about was comprehensive change – change that would result in meaningful sexual harassment training every year within the Iron County School District,” Burns said. “These women were extremely brave, and they have been through a lot and it was my honor and my privilege to represent them.”
The school district declined comment. The settlement agreement does not reflect an admission of guilt by the school district.
The money paid out to all parties in this case was fully covered by the Utah Division of Risk Management that provides liability insurance coverage to various state agencies including school districts, said school district Superintendent Dr. Shannon Dulaney.
Court documents in the case allege the harassment occurred from 2007 when El-Halta was originally hired at the middle school to around 2015. El-Halta was charged last year with seven counts of sexual battery and two counts of accessing pornography on school property.
The defendant pleaded guilty to all charges Jan. 28, 2016. He was sentenced to 24 months of unsupervised bench probation, which means he must abide by certain court conditions but is not required to report to a probation officer. El-Halta was also ordered to pay a fine and court fees and to obtain a psychological evaluation. He served his jail time in May 2016 and following in the Juab County Jail over a period of 15 consecutive weekends.
The 31-page lawsuit details the ongoing sexual harassment that ranged from offensive innuendos and inappropriate comments to intentionally touching the women’s “breasts, buttocks, back, shoulders and legs in a sexual manner.” In addition, he accessed pornography on school computers that he shared with the women on different occasions.
The women claimed that throughout this time they – both individually and collectively – complained to the school and district administrators about El-Halta’s behavior but were never taken seriously.
An internal investigation was finally launched in 2014 after a district employee who did not work at the middle school made similar complaints about El-Halta. During the investigation, the former counselor was allowed to remain on the job working alongside the female employees who he served over in a supervisory position.
The lawsuit continues by pointing out that the district had no sexual harassment policies in place nor reporting procedures. Officials also lacked adequate training to deal with the issues at hand.
“Plaintiffs felt that there was a ‘boys club’ mentality, in which El-Halta could get away with his harassment without repercussion because of his relationship with Benson and Nielsen,” according to the complaint. “As a result, El-Halta’s behavior not only continued, but also escalated in its frequency and offensiveness.”
District attorneys denied the plaintiffs’ allegations in their answer to their complaint.
Ed. note: It was reported earlier that all of the women received $40,000 however, Ashley Whiting received a $60,000 payment.
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