POLSON — As the #MeToo movement protesting sexual harassment sweeps the country, a case of alleged harassment played out in a Polson courtroom last week.
Over the course of three days, tearful allegations of sexual misconduct at the local swimming facility were met with adamant denials and opposing versions of the story as the two sides clashed in a case that has driven a wedge through portions of the community.
Six months after losing her job as a lifeguard at the Mission Valley Aquatic Center in February 2016, Tristen Flagen filed a case with the state’s Human Rights Bureau charging that she was sexually harassed and then fired.
Flagen claims that a fellow head lifeguard who was promoted to assistant swim coach sexually harassed her over the course of five months. She also said her supervisors refused to take her concerns seriously.
That lifeguard, Zacharie Martin, said the woman’s allegations were untrue and Flagen’s supervisors testified that she had never told them that she was being sexually harassed.
The case was heard by Montana Department of Labor and Industry hearings officer Chad Vanisko.
In her opening remarks, the aquatic center’s attorney, Antonia Marra of Great Falls, said she would show none of the woman’s allegations actually happened.
“It is popular right now to believe that anyone who accuses anyone of sexual harassment must be telling the truth,” Marra said. “In fact, people accuse people of sexual harassment for a variety of reasons — to manipulate situations, to get back at someone, to change management somewhere because they don’t like what a manager is doing.”
Marra said Flagen was an angry and emotional person throughout her employment at the center, who was upset over the firing of a relative.
“Depending on the day, she could be very mean and angry to everyone and then the next day she could be as happy as a lark,” Marra said.
Despite the fact the woman had been previously employed by law enforcement, Marra said she didn’t report any of the incidents to anyone.
“Ultimately, this is a situation where an employee was disgruntled over a completely different issue and before the six months ran out on a sexual or discrimination claim, she tried to do what she could do to harm Mission Valley Aquatics,” Marra said.
The woman’s attorney, Cary Schmidt of Missoula, said people connected with the aquatic center have called Flagen’s claims “fake news.”
“Sexual assault and harassment is not fake news,” Schmidt said. “Sexual assault in the workplace is not fake news. Tristen is one of the many women who has suffered from sexual harassment. Her suffering is not fake news.”
“As a society, we are awakening to the fact that sexual assault is more pervasive than we ever could have thought,” Schmidt said. “Our hamlets in Montana are not immune to this unfortunate truth. It happens in all our towns and all our reservations and it happened here.”
Schmidt said the aquatics center failed the woman by not performing background checks on its employees as required by its policies outlined in the handbook. It didn’t have a clear supervisory structure so lifeguards knew who to bring their problems to or a mechanism to file complaints. And, he said the center’s management failed to listen to their employees.
He said Flagen hopes this case will force the center to rectify those deficiencies.
Flagen’s supervisors failed to take steps to protect her from Martin’s advances, Schmidt said.
Flagen claimed that Randy Folker, the former swim coach for Mission Valley Aquatics, had asked her out on a date and that their relationship soured when she refused.
When Folker promoted Martin to the position of assistant swimming coach, Flagen said she told Folker that Martin was acting inappropriately toward her, said Schmidt. Instead of asking what that meant, she said Folker angrily told her he supported Martin and that if she didn’t like it, she could quit.
When she took the issue of the man’s inappropriate behavior to the aquatic center’s director, Ali Bronsdon, she was rebuffed again, Schmidt said.
“The pool will argue that (the woman) did not go far enough,” Schmidt said. “She had to say the magic words — sexual harassment. Inappropriate wasn’t enough … You have to say the magic words.”
Folker and Bronsdon offered a completely different version of the story.
Both said that Folker was the head swim coach and did not serve as Flagen’s supervisor.
Folker said he never yelled or was angry with Flagen in any of their interactions. He was also never interested in asking her out on a date.
Folker — who now teaches at Mission Valley Christian Academy — said he has never dated someone who isn’t a Christian. If he had been interested in dating Flagen, he would have first asked if she goes to church and what her relationship was with Christ.
“I don’t know that about Tristen,” he said. “I never asked her. If I had been interested, that would have been the first thing I asked.”
Both Bronsdon and Folker said Flagen never told them about being sexually harassed. Neither recalled Flagen even saying that Martin was acting “inappropriate” toward her.
“I don’t remember anything that would have raised any kind of red flag,” Folker said. “If there had been anything about sexual misconduct…there’s not even a doubt in my mind that 30 seconds later there would been action taken and that action would not have stopped until I knew if something had happened or not.”
“I love Zax,” he said. “He’s a good guy, but he had to know that my relationship with him would not extend to protecting from anything like that.”
Flagen testified that crass small talk from Martin eventually ramped up over time to something much worse.
By October 2015, the woman claimed that Martin was texting her sexual photographs and videos of himself even after she asked him to stop. In early December, she said he lured her into the family bathroom and masturbated in front of her. Another time, he walked in the family bathroom while she was showering and propositioned her. When he approached her with his pants pulled down in the lifeguard room in January 2016, the woman said she went to the center’s manager.
Martin denied that any of those things happened.
The St. Ignatius man said his relationship with Flagen was on again, off again.
“One day we would be OK and the next we would be arch-enemies,” Martin said. “She would ignore what I had to say and just stay away from me and then one week later everything would be hunky dory and then we would be back at each other’s throats.”
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Martin said he asked Flagen to become friends with him on Snapchat. He denied ever sending her a pornographic image of himself.
“It was just fun pictures,” he said. “Like me doing something goofy or a picture of my family…like me making a funny face or something I thought was funny at the pool.”
Martin said he deleted that Snapchat account in 2015. He has since started a new account.
He told the hearing’s officer that he also deleted a Tumblr account that included adult content that he had collected. Despite the fact that it had been deleted, Flagen’s attorneys found evidence of the account online and had asked him about it.
“I thought it was private,” Martin said.
When asked if he now knew it wasn’t, Martin replied: “Yeah, you made that clear.”
Martin also testified he had been charged with sexual intercourse without consent with a 14-year-old girl.
Lake County court records show that Martin was charged on Jan. 31, 2011, when he was 17. The girl was either 13 or 14, and under the age of consent.
The charges were dropped in April after the girl wasn’t willing to move forward with the prosecution.
About 10 days before Flagen was terminated in February 2016, the woman was required to sit down with Martin in what Bronsdon told her was a meeting meant to be a session to clear the air.
Schmidt called the meeting a “cage match.”
Folker, Bronsdon and Martin all testified the meeting was an attempt to find a way to put aside the animosity that was readily apparent between Martin and Flagen.
Bronsdon brought Flagen into the lifeguard room where Folker and Martin waited. Flagen said Bronsdon left shortly afterward.
“There were two chairs sitting in the middle of the room,” Schmidt said. “Tristen said she didn’t want to go in. … The chairs were so close together that their legs were touching.”
The other three remembered the chairs not being quite that close together.
At the hearing, Flagen testified Folker drew a triangle on a whiteboard that he said represented Maslow’s theory of hierarchy. She said Folker told her that people with more responsibilities have more needs. And that since Martin was a good coach and a father, he was going to be given more leniency.
“I just sat there,” Flagen testified. “I didn’t know how to feel … I have never felt so powerless and so small in my whole life. I have made mistakes, but that day was a pretty hard day. I agreed. I said I’m just a lifeguard. They got me down that day.”
“He (Folker) said, 'Yes, you’re just a lifeguard,'” she said tearfully. “I got up and I walked out.”
Folker told the hearing’s officer he had given the same lesson probably 30 times during his coaching and teaching career. He didn’t remember the meeting being tense.
Instead, he said it was an effort to provide Flagen and Martin with the tools they needed to be able to work together for the betterment of the facility.
Flagen’s job came to an end in February and, again, the stories from both sides didn’t match.
Flagen believes she was fired. Bronsdon said she quit.
A decision in the case will take three months or more.
Its impact is already being felt by those directly involved.
Folker has applied for a job at the aquatic center, but he doesn’t believe he’ll ever be considered because of this case.
He had hoped to avoid testifying, but a subpoena made that impossible.
“I realized the social cost I would be paying and already have started paying for being here because of the divide in the community,” Folker said. “In my classroom, I have children of adults who are on either side of this issue.”
Martin said he always feels nauseous now and can’t always eat due to the stress that he’s under.
“I am constantly worried about what people are thinking about me,” he said. “That’s not something I worried about before.”
Martin is the only one of the four who continues to work at the aquatic center.
Flagen said it took time for her to be able to admit to herself that she had been afraid during her time at the aquatic center.
“I didn’t want to have to admit that,” she said. “I am a strong person. It wasn’t until months later that I could admit that to myself. I didn’t want to be afraid.”
Flagen said she still suffers from depression and a lack of sleep.
“I can’t go anywhere without thinking I’m going to run into somebody or somebody is going to do something to me,” she said. “I have anger outbursts. I’m just scared all the time. It opened my eyes to a lot of things. And they’re not good things.
“I didn’t want to do this,” she said. “Who wants to do this? Yes, I’m probably not going to get another job around here. … I’m just not who I was before this. If you know me, you know that.”