DULUTH — The Proctor school district begins class this fall with a new superintendent and football coach, a fresh start for a community that faced widespread scrutiny amid back-to-back sexual assault cases last fall.

But characterizations of a toxic culture within the football program linger, even called out by a Duluth judge June 20 during the sentencing of the former football player who attacked his teammate.

A coach either created or permitted such a culture, and school staff and parents knew and failed to intervene, Judge Dale O. Harris said.

"It's clear to me the problem went deeper than one action on one day," Harris told a juvenile courtroom filled with the suspect's and victim's families.

Several instances of troubling employee behavior have plagued the school district of about 1,800 students: four male teachers have been charged with or accused of sex crimes within the last 16 years, and a number of complaints were filed against the football coach throughout his career.

A canceled season

Proctor residents and families reeled after the football team allegations surfaced in September, coming just a month after a middle school teacher was charged with molesting a student.

Both cases came to a close in late June. Todd Clark, a former middle school teacher, basketball coach and Proctor graduate, was sentenced to four years in prison for molesting one of his former students dozens of times, even threatening his own life if she didn't keep it a secret.

In the other case, a former Proctor student and football player was charged in January with felony sexual assault involving a plunger. That came after a lengthy investigation that began in mid-September, following a complaint of "student misconduct" within the football team.

It led to the resignation of coach Derek Parendoand the cancellation of the football season. The charged teen pleaded guilty in May under an agreement that kept him within juvenile jurisdiction, and he was sentenced to supervised probation. If he violates that, he is subject to a four-year prison sentence.

Both the former football player and the teacher must register as predatory offenders.

The Star Tribune typically doesn't name juveniles charged with crimes. He was 17 at the time of the assault.

'Concerning conduct'

Some have said a long history of behavior by school employees ranging from inappropriate to criminal, dismissed or quietly handled, may have paved the way to the football assault.

Five complaints were filed with the Proctor school district against Parendo, a 1992 Proctor graduate, between 2007 and 2021, according to a public data request. None of the complaints made to the district resulted in disciplinary action, rendering the nature of each complaint private information.

But two matters involving Parendo ended up in court. A harassment restraining order filed against him by a former Proctor teacher and cheerleading coach was dismissed in court in 2019, and a personal injury lawsuit involving a football player and a broken leg from an alleged "fight circle" was dismissed in 2010.

Tiffany Quade, who taught art at the high school, alleged instances of physical assault, stalking and uninvited visits by Parendo in court records filed in 2019. She said they began in 2017.

Quade, who did not respond to interview requests, alleged he touched her inappropriatelyin several separate instances. She also described several instances of him staring at her inappropriately and finding ways to be near her and speak to her.

Judge Eric Hylden ruled that nothing she accused him of amounted to physical or sexual assault. The school district, in its own prior investigation, court records indicate, found "concerning conduct" but no credible evidence of sexual harassment, and made arrangements to give Quade space from him.

Cynthia Graves filed a personal injury lawsuit on behalf of her son against the Proctor school district in 2009, according to court records. Parendo, in a Duluth News Tribune story from that time, said the boy's broken leg occurred during a 2008 "tackling activity" before practice.

Parendo said the activity wasn't supported by coaches, who were unaware it was happening. Graves contended they did know about the "fight circle" tradition and failed in their coaching duties when leaving players unsupervised. It is unclear what a fight circle consists of. The case was dismissed in 2010. A confidential settlement was reached between the Graves family and the school district, said Robert Falsani, the Duluth attorney who represented Graves.

Parendo didn't respond to recent interview requests. In an interview in October before complaints came to light, Parendo said the school district made him a "scapegoat" last fall. As a coach, he promoted a culture of discipline and accountability, he said, calling the football incident "isolated."

Sexual misconduct

The school district has employed several men who were eventually accused of or convicted of sex crimes.

Two Proctor teachers were accused of sexual misconduct in the last decade: along with Clark, the former teacher, a math teacher died by suicide in 2011 amid an investigation. Court records also show two other former Proctor teachers – employed by the district at the time — were convicted of prostitution-related crimes, one in 2006 and one in 2011.

Theresa Shanoff, a union representative who taught in the district for 30 years before retiring in 2019, said the football team attack is part of a larger cultural problem stemming from district leadership.

Kids likely saw the way some administrators treated staff and teachers — many who felt unsupported and afraid of former superintendent John Engelking, she said, who forbade staff from speaking publicly on controversial issues.

"Great teachers" work there, Shanoff said, but leadership seemed to put image before kids and employees.

Engelking, who retired this summer, said that any insinuation he's put students or employees at risk for the sake of his image is "false."

"The district follows state law in conducting criminal background checks on prospective employees," he said, and employees are annually notified of the district's policies and expectations related to sexual harassment and appropriate conduct with students, including periodic training.

"The district has never ignored any alleged misconduct toward staff or students that were brought to its attention," Engelking said.

'A healing process'

Now, school district leaders are looking to unite a community devastated by the trauma of the past year. During February superintendent candidate interviews, Proctor School Board chair Jennifer McDonald told one candidate what she'd like from a new leader.

The Proctor community has suffered, she said. "It needs to heal and move forward in a positive way, and rebuild trust."

New superintendent Kerry Juntunen, who plans to immerse himself in school and student life, hopes to help.

"Culture is built over time obviously, and it can be eroded over time," he said. "But the culture is the community together — it's not one person. You don't come in to heal the community, but you make yourself available to the healing process. That's what I will be here for."

Juntunen, who retired as leader of neighboring Hermantown schools in 2020, said on his first day last Friday that he'd already met with the new football coach, Matt Krivinchuk, that morning. Creating a safe culture and sense of team belonging were the center of their discussion, he said.

"People here in this community really love their schools, and they are hurting," he said, but the new coach has experience working with troubled kids, and is ready to build an open, healthy program.

"I am 100% confident you'll start seeing changes," Juntunen said.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450