FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A survey of National Park Service employees found widespread complaints of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and top officials vowed to address it through training and enforcement.
Reports of misconduct have tarnished the image of the Park Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Interior Department. A sexual harassment scandal forced the retirement of a Grand Canyon National Park superintendent in May 2016 and led the park to abolish its river district. Investigators also have uncovered problems at many of the nation’s premier parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Canaveral National Seashore and Florida’s De Soto National Memorial.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told employees during a visit to the Grand Canyon on Friday that he would hold people accountable for behavior that has killed morale within the Park Service. He urged employees to report misconduct and keep going up the chain of command if their complaints go unanswered.
“A culture that tolerates harassment and discrimination is simply unacceptable to this administration, and we’re going to take action,” he said.
According to department, nearly two of five Park Service employees surveyed this year had experienced some sort of harassment or discrimination over a 12-month period. More than 10 percent of employees were sexually harassed. The survey also looked at discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity religion and disability. About 19 percent of employees reported gender harassment. Less than 1 percent reported sexual assault.
Acting Park Service Director Mike Reynolds apologized Friday to employees who had been victims of misconduct, saying the agency will do more to support them. His and Zinke’s remarks were broadcast to Park Service employees across the country.
Reynolds outlined a series of reforms, including standardizing and strengthening sexual harassment policies, hiring more people to investigate complaints, expanding training and empowering employees through resource groups. The Park Service also created an ombudsman office to hear employee complaints.
“The survey makes it clear that NPS has a significant problem with harassment,” he said. “A culture that enables harassment and hostile workplace behavior that’s infiltrated the organization needs to stop, and it needs to stop now,” he said.
The Park Service has grappled with sexual harassment since at least 1999, when then-Director Robert Stanton appointed a task force focused on problems faced by women in law enforcement. The task force surveyed female employees and found 52 percent of them had experienced sexual harassment while working for the Park Service.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight again when 13 people who have worked at Grand Canyon National Park wrote to then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in 2014 saying male employees who conducted trips on the Colorado River preyed on female colleagues, demanded sex and retaliated against women who refused. The group said its efforts to get the Grand Canyon’s chain of command to respond went nowhere.
Grand Canyon Superintendent Chris Lehnertz said the Park Service has learned that the trauma is real and must be addressed to heal.
“The trauma changed lives, it changed families, it changed careers,” she said.
About half of the Park Service permanent employees participated in the latest survey. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they did not file a report or complaint over misconduct. Of those who did, about 46 percent thought it would go nowhere, and a third of them reported mistrust in the process.
A separate survey was conducted for seasonal Park Service workers.