Feds Sue Houston Over Harassment of Women Firefighters

HOUSTON (CN) – Hell-bent on keeping women out of their station, Houston firefighters urinated all over their female colleagues’ dorm and wrote death threats on the walls, the Justice Department claims in a lawsuit seeking to strengthen the city’s anti-harassment policies.

The Houston Fire Department’s Station 54 – one of more than 100 fire stations in the sprawling city – is located at Bush Intercontinental Airport and staffed with firefighters who have been trained how to respond to airplane crashes.

Though the station has separate quarters for male and female firefighters, the federal government says that going back to the early 2000s, men regularly watched television in the women’s dorm and used their bathroom, getting urine all over the toilet seats and leaving tobacco spit cups and trash everywhere, to signal that women were not welcome at the station.

The Justice Department said the federal lawsuit it filed Wednesday against the city of Houston is the first in its new “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative,” focused on fighting sexual harassment and gender discrimination in government agencies.

According to the complaint, firefighter Nefertari Alexander periodically worked at Station 54 in 2006 while the harassment campaign was going unchecked by male captains, who simply told male firefighters to clean up after themselves when Alexander complained about them trashing the dorm.

“Each time she worked at Station 54, Alexander observed urine in the sink, on the mirror, and around the toilet seat,” the complaint states. “She also found fireworks taped to the inside of the toilet seats and, on another occasion, someone had defecated in one of the toilets and had purposely blocked the automatic flush sensor so that the toilet would not flush.”

The feds says the next time Alexander was assigned to the station she found nail clippings in the women’s dorm and the carpet smelled of urine. She also caught a male firefighter sleeping in a bed in the dorm.

The situation had not improved when Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes transferred to the station in 2008 and 2009, respectively. They were the only female firefighters permanently stationed there.

The Justice Department claims their male colleagues ostracized them, often not interacting with them for their entire 24-hour shifts, and amped up their juvenile pranks.

“In early 2009, Draycott reported to her captain that a firecracker exploded when she opened the door to the stall in the women’s bathroom. He laughed at her complaint,” the lawsuit states.

The government says Draycott complained to her male chief on June 19, 2009, about scalding hot water in the dorm’s shower, and an investigation revealed the cold water valve had been turned off.

In response to Draycott’s repeated complaints about urine on the toilet seats, according to the complaint, a male captain announced in June 2009 that the women’s dorm and bathroom were off limits.

Following this announcement, speakers that transmit emergency calls were turned off in the women’s dorm, so Draycott almost missed a service run, and TV cables in the dorm went missing, the lawsuit states.

The Justice Department claims Houston’s Office of Inspector General launched a half-hearted investigation that concluded the complaints about the dorm speaker and shower were credible, but did not identify any culprits or make any recommendations to the fire department to change its culture.

The harassment took a sinister turn after the Office of Inspector General investigation, the lawsuit says, when Keyes, who is black, and Draycott walked into their dorm on July 7, 2009, to find death threats written on the walls in black marker.

“‘Niggar lover’ and ‘Die bitch’ were written on the wall above Draycott’s desk, which had a picture of her two children. On the wall above Keyes’ desk and on her pull down bed, ‘die niggar’ was written. Inside Draycott’s locker, someone wrote ‘dead’ on the picture of her deceased daughter, who had been killed in an automobile accident, and ‘die’ on Draycott’s picture,” the complaint states.

The Houston Police Department gave polygraph tests to the 18 male firefighters on duty during the graffiti spree and the tests indicated one of them was being deceptive, while the test results for others came back inconclusive, according to the complaint.

Draycott and Keyes were placed on leave during the investigation, and Keyes eventually transferred to another station, the feds say. Draycott asked her superiors to be reassigned to Station 54 in autumn 2009.

The Justice Department says, in an unusual move for the Houston Fire Department, the department’s entire command staff, all men, including then-HFD Chief Phil Boriskie, showed up for roll call at Station 54 on Draycott’s first day back.

During the roll-call meeting, Draycott broke down in tears as several firefighters and a captain read statements saying they did not want her back because they thought she was mentally unstable and would file complaints against them, according to the lawsuit.

Draycott went back on leave after the meeting. In late 2010, at the request of the city’s legal department, a clinical psychologist evaluated Draycott and reported in February 2011 that she was “psychologically unable to perform her duties as a firefighter presently or in the future,” the complaint states.

The feds say Draycott filed an application for medical retirement, which was approved after another psychiatrist also found she was not mentally fit to be a firefighter.

The Justice Department seeks lost wages and benefits and compensatory damages for Draycott and Keyes. It claims the women were subjected to a hostile workplace and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It also wants Houston ordered to revamp its anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies.

Responding to the lawsuit, the Houston firefighters’ union on Wednesday called on the city to release all the evidence it gathered for its inquiry into the alleged harassment at Station 54, to exonerate the 40 firefighters who cooperated with the investigation.

The union’s president, Patrick Lancton, said in a statement that the events at Station 54 had placed Houston firefighters “under a cloud” of criticism.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty. . .We hope this federal case finally sets the record straight on what actually happened at Station 54,” he said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said it has been unable to verify Draycott’s and Keyes’ allegations, or reach a settlement with them, so it will fight the lawsuit.

“The DOJ lawsuit stems from alleged events, some of which took place 10 years ago, and about which the federal government has long been aware. After a thorough investigation, the city could not substantiate the claims of the plaintiffs when they were made; nor has the city been able to resolve the claims asserted on a mutually agreeable basis. Accordingly, the city will defend itself. The city does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment,” Turner’s spokesman said in a statement Thursday.

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