The return of a fired assistant principal to Hibbing High School was postponed this week, after the district faced opposition from Minnesota’s human rights commissioner and frustrated parents.
Jac Fleming was forced to resign in August, after a yearlong investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found probable cause that he had discriminated against female students.
An arbitrator with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services later ruled that Fleming be reinstated, finding that the district didn’t have a sufficient reason to fire him.
Upon learning that Fleming was to return to the high school on Monday, Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey lashed out at the district.
“The school district is failing to protect its students,” Lindsey said in a statement, adding that his department had turned the matter over to the state attorney general. He said the district hadn’t pursued all legal options to protect students, since it could have appealed the arbitrator’s decision in court.
The human rights investigation and arbitrator’s ruling are confidential, and the details of Fleming’s alleged transgressions have not been made public. Parents said, among other things, that Fleming was accused of doing “dress code” inspections of young female students behind closed doors, and would pull girls out of class to counsel them on personal matters that were inappropriate.
But the complaints “were never about harassment,” said Robert Belluzzo, superintendent of Hibbing Public Schools. “They were never about assault … they deal with discrimination of female students.”
The arbitrator ordered the district to pay Fleming for the six months he was unemployed, and he’ll continue receiving a paycheck despite not working, according to Belluzzo.
Belluzzo said that after meeting with Lindsey, “I just felt that as we are trying to reach a settlement with the Department of Human Rights it would be best if Mr. Fleming doesn’t return. … We delayed his return indefinitely.”
Fleming’s attorney, Roger Aronson, said what happened to his client was tragic.
“There are some people that are just spreading rumors about him and attempting to ruin him and make his life miserable, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Aronson.
“If you physically walked in the school, you’d see that his office is right in the center of the busy school office there. It’s not like people were going to some isolated section or anything like that. … Suggesting that he poses some danger is just ridiculous.”
A meeting scheduled Tuesday to discuss Fleming’s return with students was canceled.
In recent months, angry parents have galvanized over concern that school administrators had poorly handled problems with Fleming. Forming the Hibbing Coalition for Safe and Accountable Schools, they’ve accused the district of lacking transparency and not sufficiently documenting complaints over his conduct.
“There was a sense that there was too much power in too few people at Hibbing High School,” said Melissa Scaia, a leader in the coalition and executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Family Peace.
“I think this situation was created by a lack of administrative oversight,” said former principal Glenn Muster. Parents, he added, “think that the administration needs to be changed, that the current administration developed this problem.”
Belluzzo, who is set to retire this year, declined to address the parents’ allegations in an interview.
“Certainly we understand their thoughts and their concerns. … We understand that it’s a major issue in the community,” said Belluzzo.