Fruitland responds to federal lawsuit with details on how leaders handled harassment allegations

Teresa Fabricius

Fruitland School District superintendent Teresa Fabricius was aware in 2018 of “rumors” that then-Fruitland High principal Mike Fitch allegedly harassed females at the school, but she said she didn’t have enough information to investigate those complaints, according to court filings obtained by Idaho Education News.

Megan Fenton, a former employee of Fruitland High School, filed a lawsuit against Fruitland, Fabricius and Fitch last year. The suit alleges that the district created a hostile environment, where Fenton was sexually harassed and discriminated against because of her gender. In their responses to that lawsuit, filed late February in U.S. District Court, both Fruitland and Fitch refute her claims.

The lawsuit follows a criminal trial last year, where a jury acquitted Fitch of charges that he sexually battered Fenton, who worked as a counselor at Fruitland High.

Fenton’s lawsuit claims that Fabricius and the school district failed to address concerns that Fitch was harassing students and staff at the school. It also says that the district allowed Fitch to continue acting as principal of Fruitland High School even after the Idaho State Police began investigating his behavior.

Fruitland’s response to that lawsuit argues that Fabricius couldn’t initiate an investigation with only “hearsay rumors” about Fitch’s behavior, and that Payette County Prosecutor Ross Pittman told her to keep information about the state police investigation confidential. Fitch also filed a response to the lawsuit, in which he admits to corresponding with Fenton but denies allegations he ever battered her or was inappropriate with students.

The federal lawsuit claims that Fitch engaged in “flirtatious and inappropriate” conduct with high school students and staff at the school, allegations that Fitch denies. It further argues that Fabricius “received reports” of these allegations four separate times between March and August of 2018, but the district “failed to conduct any investigation or take any steps to protect Ms. Fenton and other students and staff at Fruitland High School.”

Fabricius did receive complaints about Fitch’s behavior in 2018, the district says in its reply to the lawsuit. But, those reports were “vague hearsay rumors,” the district argues. Fabricius encouraged tipsters to bring her more information, the court filing says, but nobody “produced any first-hand knowledge of inappropriate conduct, and none of the unnamed alleged victims ever reported any misconduct to Fabricius or the board.”

The Fruitland School District attorney told Fabricius that she couldn’t start an investigation based only on rumors, the district’s response says.

Another point of contention in the lawsuit is the district’s delay in placing Fitch on administrative leave when he was under police investigation.

Idaho State Police opened an investigation into Fitch in August of 2018, following allegations that Fitch had been inappropriate with students. The district did not place Fitch on administrative leave until November of that year. Fitch was never charged in relation to conduct with students.

In the court documents, Fabricius alleges that she first learned of the Idaho State Police investigation from another staff member in late September, nearly a month after the investigation began.

When Fabricius heard about the investigation, the response says, she contacted Payette County Prosecutor Pittman.

“Pittman stressed her knowledge of the investigation must be kept completely confidential,” the response says. Fabricius says she was not aware of any specifics of that investigation, and that Pittman told her that he would let her know immediately if he thought there was any “imminent danger.”

“Because Ms. Fabricius had not received any firsthand complaints by any alleged victim or from anyone with first-hand information, and based upon Mr. Pittman’s assurances there was no current threat to students or staff, Ms. Fabricius decided to defer to the law enforcement investigation upon advice of the District’s attorney,” the document says.

Pittman declined to comment on the district’s description of events, saying he could not discuss pending litigation.

The response says Fabricius followed up with Pittman through October and November, and Pittman never notified her of any risk to the safety of students and staff. While the investigation was ongoing, he told her at the time he “did not believe criminal charges would be filed against Mr. Fitch,” the response says.

The dynamics of that investigation shifted in November, when Megan Fenton told police that Fitch had sexually harassed and assaulted her.

Fabricius learned of those allegations on November 15, the same day that Fenton interviewed with police, the district’s response says.

“After reviewing the report later that day, Ms. Fabricius immediately took steps necessary to place Fitch on administrative leave,” the district response says. The board voted to put Fitch on leave the next day, November 16.

Sami Edge

About Sami Edge

Reporter Sami Edge, a University of Oregon graduate, joined Idaho Education News in 2019. She is a 2019 Education Writers Association fellow reporting on Latino student outcomes in Idaho. She also is a 2019 American Press Institute fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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