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Local organizations provide resources for ‘silence breakers’

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By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff

Last week, Time Magazine announced its 2017 person of the year: the “Silence Breakers.” It’s referring to the group of women who spoke out about sexual misconduct in their respective industries, launched the #MeToo movement on social media and generally cultivated the national dialogue that’s led to seemingly unending headlines and allegations.

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It’s a literal and figurative snapshot of the issue. Yes, sexual misconduct is pervasive in high-profile industries like Hollywood, and those allegations garner equally high-profile media coverage. But, as the Center for American Progress recently reported, lower-paying industries — large parts of the Roaring Fork Valley economies — often represent the bulk of sexual harassment complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The study, which categorized 41,250 EEOC complaints from 2005 to 2015, found that more than 14 percent represented employees in accommodation and food service. Retail trade (13.44 percent), manufacturing (11.72 percent) and healthcare and social assistance (11.48 percent) were the next largest industries from which employees filed sexual harassment claims. Education services rounded out the “Top 10,” as it were, with almost 3.98 percent.

Of course, not all complaints are handled through the EEOC. “In our district, complaints of sexual harassment are rare,” Roaring Fork Schools Public Information Officer Kelsy Been said in an email. “However, when a sexual harassment complaint is filed, our HR department follows a formal protocol to investigate the allegations and take appropriate measures when needed.”  

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Colorado Mountain College has extensive resources for both students and faculty regarding sexual misconduct. “I think CMC has made a concerted effort to have up-to-date policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct and any kind of gender-related discrimination,” CMC Title IX Coordinator Lisa Doak said. In addition to Doak, every campus location has a designated deputy coordinator. All employees double as “mandatory reporters,” a status that requires a worker share with a deputy any situation that may be deemed noteworthy, Daok said. Additionally, every CMC employee undergoes a proprietary two-and-a-half-hour online training about preventing and reporting misconduct. “We want everyone on campus to be aware of what the definition of sexual misconduct is, how to report it, and then what the resources are that we have available,” she said.

In addition to counselors and designated coordinators, the CMC Cares page of its website (coloradomtn.edu/student_services/cmc-cares/) allows anyone affiliated with the institution to submit an anonymous complaint, including sexual harassment and Title IX complaints.

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Even thorough efforts to educate and prevent misconduct are not foolproof. “Of course, like any other institution, we certainly do have reports,” Doak said. When that occurs, timely and thorough investigation is important, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all response. “It’s very situational. It’s important to look at every aspect.” The consequences of a claim could range from training and education for the involved individual to removal from the college.

Training and making policies easily accessible seem to be the common approaches among prominent employers in the Valley. And while complaints occasionally do happen, having those policies in place and updated is crucial to responding effectively.

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“We have definite steps,” Nichole Schoon, RFTA Title IX coordinator, said. “We have it in our handbook, which every employee receives when they come on. They know where they can go [and] who they can go to if something were to happen. We also advertise our policy statement on our website and send it out to different entities that we are with,” she said. While there was one incident during her tenure with the organization, “it was a misunderstanding [that] was handled within house,” largely thanks to those policies, she said.

The Town of Carbondale has similar processes that seem to have curtailed potential issues. “We haven’t received any recent complaints (over the past 4-5 years),” Town Manager Jay Harrington said in an email. “The Town also requests all new employees to watch a training produced by our insurance company on sexual harassment in the workplace,” he said, adding that a similar training is in place regarding workplace violence.

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Breaking down the numbers

A request for Garfield County and Pitkin County statistics with the EEOC regarding sexual harassment claims proved inaccessible — and that’s by design, said Patricia McMahon, outreach and education coordinator for the EEOC Denver Field Office. While unexpected even for her, it made sense, she said, as the commission is “picky” regarding details its systems share in reports. That’s to protect employer confidentiality, she explained. If instead of labeling a county as “Colorado 1,” for example, a report listed that county by name, it would not be difficult for someone to deduce which entity is a defending employer based on that information. So, while county information is recorded in every complaint, it is subsequently coded according to an auditor — and even EEOC employees don’t know the codes.

That said, the EEOC does break down nationwide and statewide statistics. Depending on which numbers you look at, the story changes. On the one hand, sexual harassment claims have been dwindling in recent years. With the exception of a minor spike between fiscal-year 2015 and FY 2016, the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC in the United States has steadily declined since 2009 — Colorado’s numbers were less linear, but the overall trend was similarly downward (going from 204 complaints in FY 2009 to 164 in FY 2017).

That trend looks hopeful — but most complaints may go unreported altogether, largely out of fear of retaliation. The EEOC statistics would confirm that assertion. There were 33,613 Title VII retaliation complaints filed with the entity in FY 2009 in the country; by FY 2016, that number had grown to 42,018. Last year in Colorado, Title VII retaliation complaints had swelled to 41.6 percent of EEOC complaints in the state, up from a five-year low of 34 percent in 2012.

Most sexual misconduct complaints are handled internally, within a company’s human resources or equivalent department — if they are handled at all (again, most complaints go unreported). Many local employers outline their policies in their employee handbooks and publish reporting pathways on websites. If anyone is considering filing a complaint with the EEOC, there is an online portal to do so (publicportal.eeoc.gov/portal/Login.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2fportal%2f), as long as the standard 180-day timeline is met.

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