By Del. Kaye Kory & Jessica Swanson
We are women — a long-time community activist and a state legislator — who have lived in Fairfax County for many years. We are frustrated that our leadership has done little to address the sexual harassment and discrimination charges brought more than a month ago against the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department by Battalion Chiefs Kathleen Stanley and Cheri Zosh.
Stanley and Zosh partnered with the ACLU to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the agency. They alleged that department leaders disregarded women’s claims of systemic discrimination and punished women who spoke out.
The Board of Supervisors approved the appointment of Battalion Chief Stanley as Women’s Program Officer in response to Nicole Mittendorf’s tragic death by suicide in 2016. An internal department investigation found sexual harassment was a major factor leading to Mittendorf’s death. In January of 2018, Chief Stanley resigned in frustration with Fairfax County’s lack of action.
Since the #MeToo movement has gained momentum over the past year, many perpetrators of sexual harassment have been held to account as a result of growing public pressure. This nationwide recognition of culpability is a welcome validation of women’s passionate voices raised in defense of those who courageously name and openly accuse their harassers. These women deserve and require the support of community leaders at all levels. When women speak out about sexual harassment and discrimination, our leadership must listen and refuse to tolerate retaliation against those who report sexual harassment.
All of us in Fairfax County — from the Board of Supervisors and County Executive to state legislators and community activists — must work together to address sexual harassment. Many of us who support decisive measures are disappointed at the failure of the House of Delegates to pass strong legislation to combat sexual discrimination in our own Capitol workplace. We must hold ourselves to account in fighting harassment as a model for the rest of the Commonwealth.
Similarly, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova and County Executive Bryan Hill urgently need to tackle the problems of the Fire and Rescue Department in tangible ways, including launching an independent investigation of the treatment of women in the department and making the findings public. We applaud the hiring of a new Fire and Rescue Department Chief, and expect our County leadership to swiftly make public a timeline of actions leading to the elimination of workplace sexual harassment and bullying in that department. This action statement should include a fair and honest acknowledgement that there is, in fact, a serious problem in the Fire and Rescue Department. While the third party assessment by the Titan Group completed over a year ago states that bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment, “as perceived by some members,” does exist in “some areas of the department” and needs to be “proactively addressed by the department and the County in changing the culture,” these vague statements minimize the importance of the issues and seemingly shrug off responsibility by calling for a “culture change,” which is often bureaucratic speak for very little visible action.
We all know that the first step towards addressing the problem of endemic and embedded sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace is a frank and open acknowledgement of the existing problem. A simple “workplace bullying will not be tolerated” is insufficient. Actually, workplace bullying has been tolerated, inadvertently or not. What Fairfax County residents need to hear is that this won’t be tolerated any longer and this is how we will accomplish that goal.
We must demand that our leaders at all levels of government act to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. In the County, this will require, first, transparency with respect to the previous unacceptable incidence of sexual harassment in the Fire and Rescue Department. Without openness, we cannot trust that our Fairfax County leaders are serious about correcting the department’s problems and constructing a harassment-free county government. Only then will we be sure that our daughters can follow their dreams to become firefighters without with fear of harassment.
This is a moral issue, and we should not allow it to become a political issue.
Del. Kaye Kory is a Democrat who represents the 38th district in the House of Delegates. Jessica Swanson is a Falls Church community activist and 2018 Emerge Virginia participant.