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ACLU files federal suit against Fairfax County Fire & Rescue & IAFF local over discrimination

Lawsuit claims harassment, bullying, discrimination and retaliation

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Previously: It’s time for Fairfax County to finally be transparent about harassment in the fire department

No one likes to hear “I told you so”, but screw it, the local government where I live is going to hear it right now from me. Since April of 2016 when Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide brought numerous accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination stretching from firehouses to the leadership of the department, I’ve had one clear message for Fairfax County (VA) officials: Order an independent, outside investigation and the let the chips fall where they may.

I’ve made this suggestion every time another ugly story hit the news. And there have been plenty of such stories over the last two years. At each step, Fairfax County made every move they could to avoid an independent investigation. They had Chief Richard Bowers meet with the women of the department. They ordered a study of how people in the department felt about these issues. They appointed a female battalion chief to handle the women’s program for the department. They had the fire chief constantly tell the press and the public that there’s “zero tolerance” for discrimination and harassment. But through this entire time they never provided the firefighters or the public with the hard facts about what was true and what wasn’t true in these accusations, details on how claims were handled by the leadership of the department and clarity on how such problems would be prevented in the future.

STATter911 coverage of this issue

Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley was the women put in charge of the women’s program by Chief Richard Bowers. Earlier this year, a letter from Stanley announcing she was resigning that post because Bowers wasn’t providing the right leadership went public. Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, immediately went with the standard knee-jerk reaction and publicly supported her chief. When she made those comments Bulova hadn’t even met with Stanley about her long list of complaints. Once again, I pointed out to Chairman Bulova she had it wrong and what was needed was an independent investigation.

After a great deal of fallout from her short-sighted comments, Bulova reversed course and actually ordered an investigation. Instead of having it done by an outside party, it was given to the brand new county executive, Bryan Hill. In a move that could make your head explode, Hill then turned the investigation over to Deputy County Executive David Rohrer. Rohrer, the former police chief, was the direct boss of Chief Bowers. While it’s nothing personal against Dave Rohrer, the truth of the situation is, other than handing it over to Chief Bowers to investigate himself (which essentially is what was done for the previous two years) you couldn’t find anyone closer to the situation to handle what should have been an unbiased probe.

My suggestion for a truly independent, no-holds-barred investigation was to have it completed by this week so that a comprehensive report could be presented at the 2018 I-Women Conference. The annual gathering of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services is meeting right now, right here in Fairfax County. It was a chance to set a tone of transparency and leadership on these issues for the rest of the fire service and, at the same time, provide a clean slate for a new fire chief after the forced resignation of Chief Bowers.

Of course that didn’t happen. But there is a 36-page report that has been unveiled as the I-Women Conference is underway. It’s in the form of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against Fairfax County, the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department and IAFF Local 2068. The ACLU picked Fairfax County as its first federal sexual harassment suit of the MeToo movement. Quite an honor, huh? See the details, below, from WUSA-TV reporter Peggy Fox.

This is what happens when your primary goal in government is to avoid uncovering the truth about one of your agencies and sharing it in a transparent manner with your employees and the taxpayers. Congratulations Sharon Bulova and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, you earned this lawsuit. Wear it proudly. And by the way, now, more than ever, you still need an outside, independent investigation to clear the air and set the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department on the right path for the future. Can you hear me now?

Peggy Fox, WUSA-TV:

In its first federal sexual harassment complaint of the Me Too movement, the ACLU has filed charges against the Fairfax County and the fire department.

The charges are being filed on behalf of two of the highest-ranking women in the Fairfax County Fire Department. The national civil rights organization is accusing Fairfax County leadership of retaliation over sexual harassment complaints.

The charges are the first step in filing a federal lawsuit over the treatment of women in a fire department renowned for its emergency and fire response.

“Harassment, cold shoulder, people messing with my office. My computer not working,”said Kathleen Stanley.

“They’re trying to force me out. There’s no other way to look at it,” said Cheri Zosh.

Battalion chiefs Cheri Zosh and Kathleen Stanley are the two highest-ranking women in the Fairfax County Fire Department. They are two of only three women battalion chiefs. Zosh has been in the department 24 years, Stanley, 27 years.

“You see the County Executive stand up in front of the whole nation and say we don’t have a problem here in Fairfax county, and simultaneously, I’m being torn apart on the Union web page. Everybody denies it’s happening, and yet, they’re participant in it,” said Kathleen Stanley.

The ACLU has filed three separate discrimination charges totaling 36 pages. They accuse the County, the Fire Department and the local union of harassment, bullying, discrimination and retaliation. The charges claim that after Zosh reported fire captain Jon Bruley in the sexual harassment case, Chief Bower transferred her to an area further away from her home and children. It claims she’s also been denied transfer requests and worker’s compensation medical claims for an injury sustained while fighting a house fire.

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