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County, school failed in sex assault responses, Human Rights Department says

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Rebecca Lucero
Rebecca Lucero offers remarks after being named commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights by Gov. Tim Walz in January 2019 in Hastings, Minn. The department on Thursday announced its legal action in two cases involving sexual assault of minors.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News file

Stressing the need to protect children from sexual assault and hold adults in power accountable, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights went public Thursday with legal actions it took against Ramsey County and a west metro high school.

The Ramsey County case involved a teenage lifeguard who alleged that in the summer of 2013, when she was 16, her supervisor drove her to a closed beach and sexually assaulted her.

She said she told two other supervisors about the attack — with no result.

The following summer, she was again scheduled to work with the supervisor who had assaulted her; she told a third supervisor, who took action.

"When Ramsey County permitted that violence to occur in the very first place, and then refused to act after she reported the sexual assault, Ramsey County really violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex,” said Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero.

“They caused tremendous harm by failing to act,” Lucero added. “This is a minor that we are talking about."

The state and Ramsey County reached a settlement agreement in the case, although the county does not admit liability or wrongdoing. The agreement obliges the county to pay the lifeguard a one-time payment of $72,500, and the lifeguard to drop all further possible claims against the county.

The supervisor who assaulted the teen admitted wrongdoing and has been convicted and sentenced, said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo.

The agreement with the Human Rights Department requires Ramsey County to hold employee trainings and to report its handling of any subsequent complaints.

"And you can imagine my shock and alarm when I learned about the case,” said MatasCastillo, who was not on the Ramsey County Board in 2013.

It’s being made clear through ongoing training that employees and supervisors are obligated to report incidents of assault or harassment immediately, she said.

The second case made public Thursday by the Human Rights Department involves a lawsuit against West Lutheran High School in Plymouth.

The agency said a ninth-grade student and her father made repeated claims in the 2014-15 school year that the child was being sexually assaulted and harassed by several of her peers.

School administration took initial steps to discipline the harassing students but eventually came to believe that the girl was making up the allegations. According to the agency, the principal told the girl that she could not enroll at West Lutheran for the 2016-17 academic year.

Rather than ensuring the student’s safety, the school retaliated against her by preventing her from returning for her 10th-grade year, the Human Rights Department said, adding that it tried unsuccessfully to reach a settlement with the school before filing suit on Thursday.

West Lutheran did not respond to MPR News' request for comments.

Lucero said her agency was highlighting the cases as a way to “address the pervasiveness of sexual assault in Minnesota and highlight how important it is for those in positions of authority — whether it be at the workplace or in schools or elsewhere — to prevent sexual assault from occurring in the first place, and if it does occur, properly and immediately address it."

Lucero said her office has seen an increase in the number of charges filed on the basis of sex where the allegation is sexual assault. In 2017, Lucero said her office filed 40 charges. In 2018 that number jumped to 60 charges. This year she says the office is already at 40 charges with five months left in the year.

She emphasized the importance of organizations and employers having good policies in place to prevent sexual assault and discrimination.

"We all have a responsibility to do better,” she said. “Living a life free of sexual assault and discrimination is every Minnesotan's civil right under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”