Opinion: Acting to curb sexual harassment – Atlanta Journal Constitution

The story told by Jammie Duvall, who worked for the state of Georgia in behavioral health, was a little hard to believe.

She worked with a guy who persistently made crude comments to her and repeatedly told explicit stories about sexual encounters.

“It was degrading. It was humiliating,” Duvall said. “I cried all the time.”

She told her supervisor.

The response: “What do you want me to do about it?”

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So, she quit.

Her story was among many upsetting examples of sexual harassment The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed last summer in a series of stories about how the state government lacked protections and consistent policies to help victims.

Last week, as Gov. Brian Kemp took office, this sad accounting had finally led to a remarkably positive and bold step by Kemp. More about that in a bit.

A group of the AJC’s journalists were digging into this issue months before we began publishing the stories late last summer.

Early on, they learned that no single state agency was tracking, much less investigating, sexual harassment across state government departments.

As with most stories that result in big change, it was difficult to uncover.

“Were more women coming forward to report harassment in the wake of the ‘MeToo’ movement? Was state government doing a better or worse job at stopping sexual harassment in the workplace?” asked AJC Newsroom Data Specialist Jennifer Peebles. “No one really knew.”

To examine the issue, she sought records from some 30 state departments, agencies and commissions.

Some agencies told Peebles they didn’t know what records they had and could have to go through hundreds, even thousands, of files to identify sexual harassment cases. Sometimes, Peebles’ requests were kicked back and forth between agencies that seemed confused about who kept the information. The Georgia Department of Corrections withheld records, providing only executive summaries and redacted names of victims. Other departments also attempted to redact victims’ names, but after the journalists pushed back, they provided them.

(The victims’ names were important to verify their accounts. As a matter of policy, though, the AJC does not name victims of sexual crimes without their permission.)

After months of negotiations and paying more than $6,000 in fees, the AJC obtained thousands of pages of documents. Peebles then read all the reports and created a spreadsheet with key information.

It showed Georgia has a haphazard system that stacked the deck against those who report harassment.

“Coming forward was a huge risk for them” she said.

Peebles then identified key cases for reporters Johnny Edwards and Chris Joyner to examine in depth. The reporters spent weeks reaching out to the accused, to the harassment victims, and to the agencies that handled the complaints.

As so often happens, victims were reluctant to speak on the record.

But Edwards and Joyner persisted, and gained their trust.

They had to locate people who had left state government. They spoke to former co-workers of the employees in question to get an address. Often, the reporters couldn’t find working phone numbers, so they knocked on doors.

Their editor, Lois Norder, told me that to speak to a former prison guard who had suffered harassment, Edwards drove to middle Georgia armed with a handful of possible names and addresses. It took visits to three locations to find one woman. She turned out not to be the victim in question, but she was an ex-state employee who had her own story of sexual harassment to share.

Edwards finally found the victim he was looking for after knocking on the door at one possible address four times and talking to the woman’s husband.

“When I finally found her, like other women she was glad we were covering her story, and she wanted very much to participate, but without her name or photo used,” Edwards said.

Edwards and Joyner also sought out those accused of harassment, to hear their side. Some complained about the way they’d been treated by their agency, adding to the picture of haphazard and unstandardized investigation.

And then the reporters sought explanations from state agencies. Some agencies were reticent, agreeing to comment only after reporters repeatedly pressed them.

This reporting led to several important insights:

  • The state has no consistent system for investigating complaints. It can’t even say how many of its nearly 70,000 employees have filed complaints in recent years because it has no centralized system for tracking sexual harassment.
  • Georgia leaves it up to each department and agency to decide how to address misconduct. It’s a scattershot system, with disparate treatment for victims and perpetrators from one agency to the next, and even within agencies.
  • Some harassers feel the full brunt of discipline, while others accused of the same kinds of abhorrent behaviors get only a talking-to. In some departments, even rampant misconduct can go unchecked.

But the work didn’t stop there.

During the heated campaign for governor, our journalists asked both candidates what they would do about the problem if elected.

Joyner reported that both promised they would make changes to state policy.

Then-candidate Kemp’s response, through a spokesman, was adamant.

“As a husband, father, and businessman, Brian Kemp believes that unlawful harassment and retaliation for unlawful harassment claims are unacceptable and should not be tolerated in the workplace,” he said.

If Kemp is elected, the spokesman continued, on his first day in office he would issue an executive order overhauling the state’s sexual harassment training program and designating the state inspector general as the “ultimate recipient and repository for unlawful harassment claims.”

Candidates make a lot of promises, but on his first day in office, Kemp acted.

The governor issued an executive order that requires every department and agency under his authority to designate “at least two persons, not of the same gender” to investigate complaints and report their findings to the state Office of Inspector General, which will collect and audit investigations from across state government.

Kemp ordered a new sexual harassment prevention training program which every state employee will be required to take when they are first hired and annually after that. The order also bans retaliation against those who file complaints.

Kemp said he aimed to ensure a “harassment-free workplace for executive branch employees and Georgians who interact with government.”

And that’s as it should be.

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