Better late than never, state officials are launching what we hope will finally be a credible investigation of sexual harassment complaints by women employees at Little Sandy state prison in Elliott County.
A circuit court jury earlier this year heard testimony and considered evidence that Sgt. Stephen Harper had been allowed for years to sexually prey on female corrections employees under his supervision. The allegations first came to light in 2013.
The jury in March awarded four women $1.6 million, the entire amount they had sought. The judge has ruled that the state must pay the women’s attorneys $256,769 in fees and costs.
In a Nov. 28 editorial, we asked why, despite such compelling evidence, the state is still employing Harper as a supervisor at the prison and called for his firing.
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On Dec. 11, Personnel Cabinet Secretary Thomas B. Stephens asked the Kentucky Personnel Board to initiate a formal investigation of the allegations against Harper and determine whether state laws or sexual harassment policies had been violated. The personnel board agreed to conduct the investigation.
Although prison officials did not substantiate the women’s claims, Stephens wrote, “questions about the quality of the investigation have since arisen.”
Indeed. From all appearances, the state botched the investigations of the women’s complaints and then tried to discredit their claims in court. Even now the state is contesting the jury’s verdict and seeking a new trial.
The Little Sandy official who handled the complaints testified she was never trained in how to respond to workplace sexual harassment. Plus, she worked with Harper’s wife, an administrator at the prison. Harper’s father also works there.
Another woman’s complaint was “lost.”
When an independent investigator finally was called in, the Kentucky State Police sent the twin brother of a supervisor at the prison to interview the woman, who said the KSP officer made her feel like she was in the wrong.
After one of the complaints, Harper was assigned to central control, requiring the women to interact with him daily.
Harper entered into a confidential settlement with the four women before the trial. Only one of the four women still works at Little Sandy. The warden has retired.
Secretary Stephens wisely asked that the personnel board also consider whether employees are receiving adequate training in recognizing and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace and conducting Equal Employment Opportunity investigations.
This assignment is critical as new examples of pervasive sexual harassment are revealed almost daily. Work should not be a place where people are preyed on by their supervisors.