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Dealing With Harassment

November 19, 1987

The Los Angeles Fire Department and its Board of Rights are trying to deal with a a case of alleged sexual harassment of a female firefighter while she was on duty at a Westchester station. No matter how that case turns out--and at least it is now being heard in public--it raises two important questions that city government must address before it can know what the problem is, let alone whether it is widespread.

The Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women stumbled on the first of these questions when, during a survey of city employees, it found that many workers and their supervisors do not know at what point an acceptable friendly advance turns into sexual harassment. Nor are nearly enough employees clear about what their rights are when the line is crossed or where to turn for help.

For example, in the case in question, the Fire Department Board of Rights has dropped a charge of alleged sexual harassment against firefighter Anthony Morales. Instead, he is accused of violating reasonable rules of behavior by "self-respecting citizens in a publicly operated place." The alleged victim, who was on probation as a rookie firefighter at the time, did not bring the charges. The incident came to light during an unrelated investigation. Morales was accused at Monday's hearing of appearing in the nude before the woman, attempting to grab her breasts, slapping her on the buttocks several times and trying to kiss her against her will.

The Fire Department did not discuss the criteria it used in deciding to charge Morales withviolating reasonable rules of behavior rather than harassment.

Clearly a more precise definition of sexual harassment is needed to guide men and women, supervisors and employees, rights boards and the public. Beyond that, the city must create in every department a climate in which victims feel free to report incidents of harassment. The women's commission has drafted a new policy, which comes up for approval Monday and then goes to the mayor, who has indicated his strong support.

The current city policy, which has not been revised since 1981, defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advance that is tied to a threat that the victim won't be hired, promoted or given a good job rating unless he or she--and it usually is a she--submits. The new policy would spell out examples of such advances, such as obscene letters, derogatory comments and unwanted touching, as well as visual harassment through display of nude photographs. The new policy also outlines more specifically what people who feel they have been harassed may do and to whom they should turn.

The second question the city must answer is whether harassment is widespread or isolated. That makes finding a precise definition of sexual harassment all the more urgent because no amount of investigation will help if investigators do not know what they are looking for.

This new policy, if it is widely publicized and then enforced, should go a long way toward protecting city workers and putting all on notice that sexual harassment is not acceptable.

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