Federal lawsuit filed against AAESA

The U.S. Department of Justice last week filed a lawsuit against the Allegan Area Educational Service Agency alleging it did not do enough to stop a now-fired principal from sexually harassing and assaulting teachers.

Former Hillside Learning and Behavior Center principal Jonathan Garcia was sentenced Aug. 10, 2016, to more than four years in prison for sexually assaulting two female teachers.

The department’s complaint, filed Wednesday, Aug. 15, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, alleges that AAESA discriminated against the two teachers by not taking reasonable steps to prevent regular sexual harassment in the workplace by Garcia in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. 

“All Americans are entitled to a workplace that is free of unlawful harassment based on sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “The types of discriminatory acts alleged in this lawsuit, resulting in these public sector employees suffering years of verbal and emotional abuse and ending with physical assaults, can be prevented only when employers cultivate workplace environments where workers know that such misconduct will not be tolerated.”

AAESA responded with a press release saying the allegations of criminal sexual harassment were made by employees on Feb. 1, 2016, and the former AAESA superintendent immediately placed Garcia on administrative leave, removing him from all school facilities. 

AAESA also initiated its due process policies, and obtained Garcia’s resignation as of Feb. 10, the release said.

“AAESA abhors unlawful and criminal acts of sexual harassment in the workplace,” said current superintendent William Brown. “We are, have been, and will continue to be proactive in training all employees with regards to sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying.

“In addition, we will continue to take corrective action when informed of such violations.” 

 The district’s legal counsel, noting that AAESA acted as soon as it was aware of the misconduct, is seeking to work with the Department of Justice in an attempt to resolve the complaint.

According to the Civil Rights Division, the teachers filed discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on June 23, 2016. The EEOC investigated the charges and found that there was a reasonable basis to believe that violations of Title VII had occurred. After unsuccessful conciliation efforts by the EEOC, the charges were referred by the EEOC to the Justice Department, press release. 

Through this lawsuit, the United States seeks monetary relief for each of the teachers and injunctive relief to require AAESA to develop and implement policies that would prevent sex discrimination and harassment in the future, according to a press release by the Civil Rights Division. 

The lawsuit is part of the Civil Rights Division’s Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative announced in February 2018.

To see the full press release from AAESA, visit www.alleganaesa.org.

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect what printed in the Aug. 23, 2018, issue of The Allegan County News.)

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