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Pelican Rapids School District looking into sexual misconduct allegations against coach

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The Pelican Rapids High School houses grades seven through 12. Shawn Gravalin has held a number of positions in the district, including a number of coaching positions. He resigned from coaching girls basketball and girls softball following the school's first investigation into his conduct following a complaint that he inappropriately touched a basketball player during practice. Photo illustration2 / 2

Shawn Gravalin denied allegations he mentally abused and sexually harassed players while he was the head girls basketball coach in Hankinson, N.D., in 2008. Hankinson's superintendent at the time, Jess Smith, investigated Gravalin's conduct and found what appeared to be inappropriate behavior but nothing that supported firing him.

Now, over a decade later, Gravalin is an employee and middle school basketball coach in the Pelican Rapids School District and stands accused of inappropriately touching a player's butt during practice in December, an allegation he also adamantly denies.

After an initial internal investigation that had Gravalin on paid administrative leave from Dec. 11 to Jan. 17, the Pelican Rapids School District closed its case and allowed Gravalin to return to work, finding no evidence against him. Now, however, the district has reopened its investigation, at the urging of Assistant Otter Tail County Attorney Jake Thomason.

The alleged incident

Immediately following the alleged incident on Dec. 10, the player's mother contacted the Pelican Rapids Police Department to report Gravalin touched her daughter inappropriately during practice.

While this newspaper has no intention of identifying the alleged victim, Pelican Rapids City Attorney Jeffrey Skonseng said he could not release the alleged victim's incident report to the Tribune, because he feared it would reveal the alleged victim's identity. He did, however, release the report Pelican Rapids Police Chief Jeff Stadum made after questioning Gravalin on Dec. 12 about the alleged incident.

During his interview with Stadum, Gravalin said he did not "remember anything even close" to "a touch on the butt" happening during practice. He said "a lot of times if there is an incidental I remember that because of reasons like this," meaning the possibility his intentions could be questioned.

Six different times in the report he denied even accidentally hitting a player's butt during practice or purposefully doing so as a way of congratulating the player. He said, "you do not do that;" "it is very inappropriate;" and added that he's never slapped a player on the butt in the 20 years he's coached both boys and girls.

"I have never done that(.) I do not come close to that area," Gravalin told police.

Stadum sent his completed report to the Otter Tail County Attorney's Office, and Thomason announced on Jan. 28 that he declined to file charges after reviewing the evidence, which included witness statements and surveillance video. According to Thomason, no one witnessed the alleged touch.

"To be clear, the State has substantial concerns regarding the alleged behavior of Mr. Gravalin, particularly in the light of past accusations. The State sees little reason to doubt the credibility of the alleged victim in this matter, given a full review of the relevant evidence. While the State does not feel that criminal charges can be adequately supported, it is apparent there is enough information available that perhaps the matter merits further inquiry by school authorities," Thomason wrote in a memorandum to Stadum.

Gravalin's attorney Jade Rosenfeldt responded to the allegation on Jan. 31, stating, "We are frustrated that the school is reopening their completed investigation .... He fully participated in the investigation by both the school and law enforcement .... By all accounts, there is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing by Mr. Gravalin. On the other hand, this unsubstantiated accusation has caused Mr. Gravalin and his family incredible stress and hardship."

Pelican Rapids Superintendent Randi Anderson confirmed that in addition to the recent complaint against Gravalin, the district received another complaint of unknown substance this past summer. (Under Minnesota data privacy laws, there is very little information a school district can release regarding an investigation into a staff member. Unless the investigation leads to disciplinary action, the nature of any complaint remains confidential.) In Gravalin's case, he has not been disciplined for either complaint, therefore nothing in the school's investigations is public.

The reaction

Following the initial investigation into the player's complaints, Gravalin's return to school on Jan. 17 sparked protest from students and parents in the Pelican Rapids School District.

Some students used Snapchat to organize a sit-in the day Gravalin returned to school. The roughly 20 to 25 students who took part in the demonstration sat in a locker bay, saying they wouldn't return to class unless Gravalin was dismissed.

According to a sophomore who helped organize the sit-in, the group dispersed when one of the two Pelican Rapids High School principals, Brian Korf, put a wrestler on sports suspension for a week for participating in the sit-in.

Superintendent Anderson declined to comment on the matter and cited data privacy laws when asked to do so.

"Me and a lot of other male students have siblings that are in sports that he (Gravalin) is the coach for, and we do not want him being their teacher or coach," said a Pelican Rapids junior who took part in the sit-in but didn't want his name shared. "We don't want him here ... but we get threatened with detention, and we get told that we need to mind our own business. This is our business."

After the school's initial investigation into the alleged incident with the basketball player, Gravalin resigned from coaching girls basketball in Pelican Rapids, a position he held since he started working for the district in 2008. He has also resigned as the girls softball coach, a position he held since 2015. He is still a paraprofessional at the school.

Past complaints unearthed

Gravalin resigned amidst controversy in Hankinson, as well.

Though Smith said in his investigation report that some of Gravalin's behavior needed to change, Fritz and Tammy Geffre, the parents who made the complaint that sparked the investigation into his conduct, were not satisfied with this result and appealed the matter to the Hankinson School Board. At that time, the district bought Gravalin out of his contract, saying they hoped that would "end the controversy surrounding the girls basketball program."

Rosenfeldt, Gravalin's attorney, also released a statement Jan. 31, addressing the allegations made against Gravalin 11 years ago: "Past allegations against Mr. Gravalin should bear no consideration on the current matter .... In all likelihood, the Hankinson situation is being resurrected to ... create unnecessary salacious material for media outlets."

Through public records requests, this newspaper obtained the investigation report from Gravalin's first go-around with similar allegations in Hankinson, which date as far back as 2006. The report shows that Chad Benson, who is now the superintendent of the Hankinson district but was the athletic director at the time, noted six complaints parents, community members and opposing coaches made against Gravalin, none of which he was disciplined for. Then, the Geffres, the parents of two players, lodged the seventh and final complaint in Hankinson in 2008.

At the time of the Geffres' complaint, Benson noted in his athletic director's report, "We have had reports similar to this about Coach Gravalin before .... At this point I am having a very bad feeling about the whole situation. I am starting to hear many of the same things I have heard for two years. Now they are coming from a player and not just rumors around town .... Their concerns are not playing time or points, they are for the most part mental abuse and sexual harassment."

The Geffres' daughters, Casey, a freshman at the time, and Cody, a junior at the time, wrote letters to Smith detailing their complaints against Gravalin.

"Coach Gravalin walked in on me in the locker room without knocking while I was just in my undergarments. And he made references to them months later," Cody wrote in her letter, adding that Gravalin would frequently place his hand on her lower back, which made her uncomfortable. "Playing basketball used to be the highlight of my life. But right now it's hard to deal with the mental anguish, verbal abuse, and sexual comments."

According to the investigation report, two assistant coaches who worked with Gravalin, Tracy Medenwaldt and Christina Hagen; two former students, Megan Stein and Beth Mauch; a junior varsity player and another former player backed up the allegations the Geffres made against Gravalin. (All minors' names have been redacted from the Hankinson investigation documents, as per North Dakota law, but newspapers named the Geffre girls 11 years ago).

In a letter to the district, Medenwaldt said she witnessed the instance when Gravalin walked into the girls' locker room and saw Cody undressing.

Hagen and a junior varsity player also noted him walking into the girls locker room unannounced. Hagen, in her letter to Smith, wrote that she remembers asking Gravalin once if she should go in before him to make sure the girls were decent, and he responded by saying, "No, they should be ready and know I'm coming in."

Both Hagen and Medenwaldt stated in the investigation report that the way Gravalin acted toward the players and the way he touched them made them uncomfortable, and when they confronted him about it, he started treating them poorly in front of the players and stopped acknowledging their input during practice.

"I witnessed a coach verbally humiliate his players on the court .... I then proceeded to witness him take a girl out of the game and slap her hard on the rear end .... I agree with Fritz and Tammy Geffre for having concerns regarding their children playing for this man and I would also want to see him stop coaching my girls," Hankinson alumna Beth Mauch wrote in a letter to the district after attending a Hankinson girls basketball game.

These testimonies aside, in his final report, Smith wrote that his investigation "does not support the termination" of Gravalin. He did note, though, that "certain changes be implemented so as to avoid problems in the future."

Shortly after resigning from Hankinson, Gravalin announced he would be moving to Pelican Rapids and taking a job there as a girls basketball coach. Benson said he was contacted by someone at the Pelican Rapids school while Gravalin was being hired there, because they had heard the news and read the articles concerning the allegations in Hankinson. Anderson, the Pelican Rapids superintendent, declined to comment on whether school officials in Pelican Rapids were ever made aware of the allegations against Gravalin in Hankinson, again citing data privacy laws.

Going forward

Anderson says in light of new information brought forth during the police investigation, Gravalin has been placed back on administrative leave while the district reopens its investigation into his conduct. She says they will make a decision about his employment with the Pelican Rapids School District when the investigation is concluded.

Gravalin has worked in the Pelican Rapids School District for the last 11 years and held numerous positions, including special education paraprofessional, study hall supervisor, morning gym supervisor, event worker, girls basketball coach, boys basketball coach, boys and girls track coach, football coach, softball coach, and volleyball coach.

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