High Desert college ‘very concerned’ over student allegations of sexual harassment by top Adelanto officials

High Desert college ‘very concerned’ over student allegations of sexual harassment by top Adelanto officials

Representatives at Victor Valley College in Victorville are speaking out about allegations by two students that they were sexually harassed by top Adelanto officials while interning at the city through the college’s CalWORKS program.


In separate claims filed with the city of Adelanto on Dec. 21 and Dec. 18, respectively, one student alleged Mayor Rich Kerr created an “uncomfortable, intimidating, and embarrassing” work environment for her by trying to obtain her personal mobile number and discussing her with other employees, calling her cute and saying she was his “kind of catch.”


Another intern alleged that City Manager Gabriel Elliott, after taking her to lunch once, repeatedly asked her out to lunch after that. Two other current or former employees have also accused Elliot of sexual harassment in separate claims.


Adelanto City Manager Gabriel Elliott denies allegations of sexual harassment by former employees. He says the allegations are made up, and that Mayor Rich Kerr may have had something to do with it.
Adelanto City Manager Gabriel Elliott denies allegations of sexual harassment by former employees. He says the allegations are made up, and that Mayor Rich Kerr may have had something to do with it.

Both Kerr and Elliott are under investigation by the city. Kerr has declined to comment pending the outcome of the investigation, and Elliot has denied all the allegations against him, insisting they are trumped up and that Kerr is behind it due to Elliott’s repeated complaints about illegal and unethical conduct by Kerr and other city council members.


“We are very much concerned regarding our CalWORKS work study students,” college spokesman Robert Sewell said in an email. “We have an obligation to be referring them to a safe worksite.”


Since 2015, the college has had seven of its students intern for the city of Adelanto. Some were subsequently hired for full-time employment, Sewell said, adding, “This is the first such reported incident of this nature, and we will be taking action to ensure our students are safely employed.”


Officials with the city of Adelanto did not respond to questions about the number of female student interns it has employed in the last three years, nor whether any other student interns made sexual harassment complaints against city officials in that timeframe.


The city did not inform officials at Victor Valley College of the allegations, college President Roger Wagner said in a telephone interview Friday. He said the college was unaware of the situation until reading about it in the newspaper, and that the school subsequently reached out to the students, which wasn’t easy because they did not know the students’ names.


“As of today, neither student had come to the campus to lodge a complaint of any kind, so we had to reach out to them after reading the newspaper article,” Wagner said. “I think the most distressing thing to me was we didn’t know who it was.”


The students were not named by this news organization because they are the alleged victims of sexual harassment.


Wagner said one of the students is no longer interning for the city, nor is she participating in the CalWORKS work study program. The college, however, was able to make contact with the other student, who dropped by the college on Friday to discuss the matter with the school’s CalWORKS program director and the director of Student Services, Wagner said.


“The one who still works there, we talked to her earlier this morning. She wants to continue to work there, and does not want to be placed in another department,” Wagner said. “We’re going to go ahead and let her stay there and monitor the situation. She says she doesn’t feel like she’s under any threat.”


He said Adelanto pays its student interns higher than any other employer participating in the CalWORKS program. The city pays 25 percent of intern wages and CalWORKS covers 75 percent.


Wagner said he has no reason to believe other students interning at the city may be vulnerable, but he would have preferred the city contacted the college to give them a heads up about the allegations and investigations against Kerr and Elliott.


“It would it have been nice if they would have contacted us. It’s never pleasant to read about something in the paper about your organization and not know about it,” Wagner said.


Marianne Tortorici, president of the college’s board of trustees, said in a telephone interview she couldn’t speak to the issue because she was unaware of the specifics and was never informed of the situation. She did say the school takes sexual harassment allegations by students very seriously.


The allegations hit a particular nerve with college board trustee John Pinkerton.


“I raised two beautiful girls and have three beautiful granddaughters, and I’m always nervous when I hear something like this,” Pinkerton said in a telephone interview Friday. He said he believes the college, once aware of the situation, acted appropriately, and advocates for stronger policy in educating its work study students on what they could potentially face in the workplace.


“I think if there’s going to be a positive outcome to this, maybe before these kids go into these internship programs, we could give them a heads up on what they could face and what their recourse is if they face it,” he said. “If there’s going to be some positive outcome, I think that might be it.”