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Jane Draycott

Feds sue city over HFD sex discrimination claims

Yikes.

The Justice Department has sued the city of Houston over sex discrimination claims launched by two female firefighters who say their male coworkers tormented them by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks and scrawling vulgar slurs on their belongings.

Male firefighters allegedly turned off the cold water in showers to scald their female coworkers and disconnected speakers to prevent women from responding to calls in a string of bad behavior that eventually escalated to death threats, according to the lawsuit.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation.”

The conduct continued over time despite at least nine complaints to management, which failed to remedy the situation and allegedly created a hostile work environment for firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes.

The city did not comment on the suit, while the firefighters’ union pushed to see more evidence released in the case and decried long-standing criticism of the department.

“Dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.

[…]

Representatives from the firefighters’ union said the lawsuit underscored the need for city officials to make public the findings of an investigation involving 40 firefighters that were polygraphed and who gave sworn statements or handwriting samples during the investigation.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately,” Lancton said, in an emailed statement.

The union leader emphasized that the firefighters exonerated in the course of the investigation deserved to be recognized as such.

“Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains,” he said.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

The city has since announced that it will defend itself and that it “does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”; you can see the city’s statement here. I thought I’d written more about this in the past, but this is the only post that I can find.

The behaviors alleged are terrible and disgusting. I can’t imagine what it was like to be Jane Draycott or Paula Keyes. The fact that a city investigation failed to find the perpetrators – the story also referenced an unsuccessful FBI investigation – is greatly disheartening, and I think the key to this. Because while it may be the case that “dozens of firefighters cooperated” in those investigations, the one thing that I know to be true is that it is firefighters who did these vile acts, and firefighters who know who did them. And neither the guilty parties nor their buddies, who surely know who they are and what they did, came forward to admit any of it.

So while there is a cloud over the department, it is for that reason that I disagree that it is “unjust”. I guarantee you, there are plenty of firefighters who know who did what and when. Maybe that information exists in the city OIG report, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is stopping the firefighters who know the truth from coming forward on their own and telling it. And please, don’t tell me that it would be hard or that they would put themselves at risk or anything like that. It was hard for Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes. Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes put themselves at significant risk, and they very much felt the consequences for that. The firefighters who know the truth can damn well deal with it.

So sure, the city should release its report. Maybe it will tell us things we don’t already know. But some people could tell us even more than that. It’s time they started. The #MeToo movement is ultimately about work, and the women who have been denied the opportunity to do the work they want to do, not just by the lowlifes who harass them but by those who stood by and stayed silent as it was happening. Now, at long last, is HFD’s chance to do something about that. Courthouse News, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

HFD news

Couple of big stories relating to the Houston Fire Department in the news this week. First, the EEOC makes a ruling:

The Houston Fire Department’s failure to properly address discrimination complaints by a female firefighter and subsequent retaliation subjected her to a “hostile work environment” based on her gender, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined.

EEOC District Director R.J. Ruff Jr. notified HFD and the firefighter, Jane Draycott, of the agency’s decision in a letter. The decision, or “determination,” may clear the way for a negotiated settlement between Draycott and the fire department or a possible lawsuit — filed by Draycott or the federal government.

Draycott and another firefighter, Paula Keyes, found racist and sexist graffiti scrawled on the walls of their dormitory at Station 54 on July 7, 2009. The incident occurred after Draycott had complained to HFD officials of harassment.

“There is reasonable cause to believe that Charging Party (Draycott) was personally and individually subjected to a hostile work environment based on her gender and that she was retaliated against,” the letter stated. The EEOC’s ruling said that “… management was well aware of the fact that Charging Party was being subjected to a hostile work environment because of her gender but failed to take corrective action.”

The city is seeking a settlement, which will hopefully bring an end to one aspect of this saga. Fixing the underlying problems is still very much an unresolved issue, however. We still don’t know who in particular is responsible for the graffiti, and it’s clear HFD has a lot of work to do to change its culture. But at least perhaps Jane Draycott can get some closure.

And when one door closes, another one opens.

The city’s Office of Inspector General will open an investigation into a visit City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones made to a downtown fire station Friday in which she is alleged to have used profanity and criticized the work ethic of firefighters.

Jones ardently disputed the account of the incident provided by officials with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, saying she had a jovial exchange with firefighters at Station 8 that was part of a team-building exercise she organized for her staff.

She said the account provided by Jeff Caynon, the fire union president, is “inaccurate” and suggested it was politically motivated. Jones said she does not remember using profanity.

“When the truth comes out, people will see it’s not accurate,” she said.

There’s no point in speculating here. What we have is two diametrically opposed stories being told by people who don’t like each other. Let the OIG do its work and sort it out as best it can.