The Department of the Interior has fired four senior managers after a survey uncovered pervasive harassment there, Secretary Ryan Zinke announced on Thursday.
In a press release, the department said that 35% of its employees reported some type of harassment or discrimination in the survey, which a third-party contractor conducted during the first three months of the year. Among other figures, 16.5% reported that they had been the victim of gender discrimination, while 8% reported sexual harassment.
“All employees have the right to work in a safe and harassment-free environment. I’ve already fired a number of predators who other administrations were too afraid to remove or just turned a blind eye to,” said Zinke. “Under my leadership we don’t protect predators.”
In addition to removing the managers, who Zinke said were “guilty of inappropriate behavior,” the department plans to institute new mandatory reporting policies to move complaints of harassment up the chain of command.
But some former federal employees contend that the problem of harassment on public lands is worse than the National Park Service and other agencies are willing to admit. Alicia Dabney, treasurer of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, says that she believes the harassment rates in the report are “absolutely not” in line with reality.
“Those are the people that were brave enough to even participate in it…people are really afraid,” says Dabney. “There were some people who were witnesses for me in my case, and they’ve never gotten a promotion ever since.”
Dabney, a former seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture in Centerville, California, filed a complaint with the agency in 2012 accusing her supervisor of putting her in a chokehold and attempting to rape her.
In response, she said, the Forest Service fired her, pointing to her failure to disclose a misdemeanor vandalism conviction and federal debt on her application. (Dabney claims she told them about both.) Her alleged attacker kept his job, and she is currently pursuing litigation against the agency in federal court.
“They need to really understand what harassment and discrimination is,” says Dabney. “Nowadays, people think everybody is just so sensitive.”
The survey is the Department of the Interior’s latest response to a series of sexual harassment scandals that have plagued it and the National Park Service, which falls under its jurisdiction, over the past two years. A report released in January 2016 described widespread sexual harassment and retaliation by boatmen in the Grand Canyon’s River District. (In response, then-superintendent David Uberuaga dissolved the district in April; at least one of the men accused of harassment remained employed at the park.)
A similar report this year described Yellowstone’s maintenance division as a “men’s club.” In an email to ABC, Interior spokesperson Heather Swift said that the park had taken disciplinary action against a number of employees.
Correction, 12/15/2017: A previous version of the article implied that the Forest Service was part of the Department of the Interior. It is part of the Department of Agriculture.