Can an Agency Plagued by Sexual Harassment Become a Model for Federal Government?

NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis Sait Serkan Gurbuz / AP

The man overseeing U.S. national parks promised this week to reform the way his employees report sexual harassment, saying his agency would become a model for the rest of government after being plagued by years of alleged misconduct.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis announced his agency is creating a hotline for employees to report sexual harassment. The announcement came as House lawmakers sent a letter to Jarvis requesting more information on NPS’ problems with harassment claims dating back to 1999. The agency came under fire this year after the Interior Department’s inspector general found pervasive and lurid examples of “discrimination, retaliation and a sexually hostile work environment” at the Grand Canyon National Park’s River District.

Jarvis said his reforms will make employees more comfortable with coming forward to report misconduct, which will in turn lead to an uptick in known cases of harassment.

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"Once they see that we are taking action, I expect the numbers of reported incidents to increase. Not that there are more cases, but I think that employees now are feeling more empowered to speak up and step up," Jarvis said this week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The director previously announced a “prevalence survey” across NPS to allow employees to anonymously report if they had faced harassment in the agency. He said in his address this week the survey would allow NPS to “establish a baseline” of just how deeply rooted the problem is. In the meantime, Jarvis said, he has established a zero-tolerance policy for “this horrible component” and told senior leadership he expects “quick action” when harassment is reported. 

An NPS spokesman said the agency is still finalizing how it would handle a sexual harassment complaint once it comes in to the hotline. 

Jarvis previously asked Congress for more authority to fire employees accused of sexual harassment. He added NPS would ultimately serve as an example for the rest of federal government to mimic.

"I expect that to occur not only in the National Park Service but in other agencies that are seeing what’s happened to the Park Service and are following our lead,” Jarvis said.

A spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which receives complaints of sexual harassment from federal employees, declined to cite the NPS reforms as a model, pointing instead to its existing guidance for workers.

Just before Jarvis’ address, leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote a letter to the director asking for documentation relating to a task force examining women in law enforcement, an NPS questionnaire for female employees from 2000 and all EEO settlement agreements between NPS and some of its employees in 1999.

The lawmakers criticized Jarvis for failing to take any final actions against senior-level employees involved in the misconduct found in the recent IG report. The investigation unveiled agency employees propositioning coworkers for sex, inappropriately touching and taking photos up a woman’s skirt among the examples of misconduct. The committee leaders said NPS has been aware of the problem for more than a decade and is need of a new strategy to address the problem.

“The fact that the Park Service’s cultural problems have persisted for at least 16 years shows the Park Service’s response to the task force’s finding was ineffective, and fresh ideas are necessary,” the lawmakers wrote. 

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