The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After a female firefighter’s suicide, the ugly sexual harassment was supposed to end. It hasn’t.

Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorff, who killed herself in 2016 after being harassed online. (Family photo)

The vile online conversations — about their co-workers' bodies, their sex lives, their abilities as first responders — made national news almost two years ago.

Since then, Fairfax County firefighters and paramedics have had sensitivity training and seminars. The fire department even appointed a special director to deal with the rampant sexism and sexual harassment there. Nationally, others hoped that Fairfax firefighter Nicole Mittendorff's 2016 suicide would be the "fire bell in the night" to help put an end to it.

The response?

A penis-shaped water bottle.

And instead of getting rid of it, as the Fairfax County firefighters were asked to do, they decorated it with testicles made out of duct tape.

How disgusting is that in our era of #MeToo and #TimesUp?

Was a Va. firefighter humiliated by co-workers online before she killed herself?

Now, one of the highest-ranking women in the fire department has had enough. Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, who was appointed director of the department's women's program in the aftermath of Mittendorff's suicide, resigned from that position this week out of frustration with the department's refusal to change.

"This position is for show, with no legitimate authority, respect, or value," Stanley wrote in her resignation letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post. "Advice, advocacy and suggestions are humored, at best, and routinely dismissed."

"Fairfax County Fire and Rescue tolerates, and often defends, sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment: 'zero tolerance' is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment," she wrote.

On Thursday, Stanley's boss, Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr., held a news conference to defend the department's record and insist that he takes all claims of bullying, harassment and retaliation seriously. Flanked by white-shirted, high-ranking men on one side and young, newly recruited women on the other, Bowers pointed to a recent survey of department personnel. It showed, he said, that 95 percent of women reported no problems in the department that have to do with their gender.

"There is not a major cultural issue in that regard," said Bowers, who called some of the allegations in Stanley's letter "misleading."

He also said he has no plans to step down from his job, despite a call for his resignation by Mittendorff's grieving husband, Steve.

"Shortly after the suicide of my wife Nicole, a promise was made to me by the Department that every effort to educate and re-shape the culture of this male dominated profession would be met; ultimately, to provide every female or male a safe place to work free of harassment by others and one that is open to progressive change," Steve Mittendorff wrote in a statement obtained by WTOP.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, remains supportive of Bowers and said she was pleased with the results of the department's personnel survey, which the department presented Tuesday at the board's Public Safety Committee meeting.

"I can say that I, and our Board, will want to gain a better understanding regarding the discrepancy between Battalion Chief Stanley's letter, and what was presented to the Board at the Committee Meeting on Tuesday," she said in a written response to my questions.

That might be a good idea, because Stanley is all too familiar with the department's culture.

A two-decade Fairfax Fire and Rescue veteran, Stanley sued in 2005, when she and other women challenged a pattern of discrimination and harassment. They alleged the department forced female firefighters to sleep in unheated station closets, made some shower in makeshift converted urinals and refused to punish a man who slapped a female firefighter across the face with a piece of ham while making sexually suggestive remarks. It led to a settlement and to unfulfilled promises of change by the department, which employs about 165 women in a workforce of 1,400.

Stanley took a five-year leave from fire department duties to work in the intelligence community, helping create protocols for first-responder training and winning awards for her work at the National Counterterrorism Center. But she eventually returned to a department still roiling with sexual misconduct.

This all came to a public reckoning in April 2016 when Mittendorff, 31, killed herself after becoming the target of cyberbullies who claimed they were her fellow firefighters. It is still unclear whether the cesspool of nasty, vulgar and derogatory discussions about her on a public online forum contributed to her death, officials said. The department said it could never pin those posts to other firefighters, but the details that appeared online were things only someone inside those firehouses would know.

What the department did learn, according to a report issued last year, was that harassment, bullying and discrimination were serious problems there, and that nearly 40 percent of the men and women who work there said they'd experienced those things.

Across U.S., firefighters dangerously and disgustingly harass their female co-workers

After Mittendorff's death, Bowers appointed Stanley to a position that had been vacant for nearly a decade — women's program officer.

During her time in that post, Stanley faced roadblocks, indifference and even hostility, according to her resignation letter.

Women don't last long in the department; few ever make it to retirement age after being passed over again and again for promotions. A woman didn't make it to retirement age — which was then 50 — until 2012, officials said.

Sexual harassment complaints continued to be filed. County officials never provided Stanley with the statistical data she requested to map and study trends in the department. A culture of retaliation against women who speak out remained relentless, her letter said.

There was the penis water bottle. There was the station captain who faced three discrimination complaints, all upheld by the state's Equal Employment Opportunity office, yet was never demoted, removed or disciplined. There was the glaring and continued omission of women from most high-level meetings, even though there are three female battalion chiefs. And there was the woman who said she was threatened with termination if she didn't drive to a far-flung station house and personally sign a superfluous piece of paper when she was two weeks postpartum after having twins by Caesarean section.

Last year, firefighter Magaly Hernandez took her harassment case to federal district court in Alexandria, where a judge dismissed her complaints that station captain Jon Bruley kept touching her, following her, blocking her in hallways and insisting that she wear a swimsuit for him.

That dismissal was reversed Tuesday by a federal appeals court.

"The Fourth Circuit was particularly struck by the fact that even after the harasser and the plaintiff were placed in different locations, the harasser continued to 'monitor' the plaintiff, to the extent of keeping detailed 'binders' full of information on the plaintiff, yet the supervisors did essentially nothing about this for months," the summary of the ruling said.

Stanley said in her letter she does not want to leave the department, where she has counseled roughly half the female employees.

But the powerless title they gave her, the mandatory training that some of the men laughed at, the penis water bottle — that is not real change. Women shouldn't have to fight fires in their own firehouses. It's time to get rid of firefighters and paramedics who can't stop behaving like teenage boys and who can't treat female co-workers with respect.

Twitter: @petulad

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