ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Harassment allegations by South Bend firefighters demand full investigation

This editorial was originally published April 18 in the South Bend Tribune. 

The charges made in a letter written by The South Bend Fire Department’s 12 female members, alleging a longstanding culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, demand a full investigation, and decisive action upon its completion if warranted.

The letter, obtained by The Tribune and sent to the mayor’s office, the fire chief and the Board of Public Safety, references the discipline of an unnamed captain. This captain, the letter says, “demeaned, harassed and blocked” a female firefighter while verbally harassing her, and also “battered her by striking her in the head.”

The captain was placed on 24-hour unpaid leave, broken up into three 8-hour days, according to a notice that Chief Carl Buchanon sent the Board of Public Safety and that the city provided to The Tribune after a public records request. This punishment, the women write, is the same that a firefighter receives for being late or missing work.

“The fire department administration, the city, and the Board of Public Safety have failed the women of the South Bend Fire Department,” the letter reads. “We come to work expecting a workplace free of harassment and violence, yet when it occurs it is treated like a slap on the wrist, even when the accused captain freely admits to the actions … and this was his third offense!”

While the letter points to a specific incident, it also alleges deeper workplace problems that have festered for years and gone unaddressed.

The ramifications here are clear, affecting Fire Department leadership, staff morale, a culture of respect — and how quickly and effectively the city handles such complaints.

As the “Me Too” movement has brought into sharp focus, the treatment of women in the workplace should not be ignored.

South Bend Mayor James Mueller and Chief Carl Buchanon, in a statement from the mayor’s spokesman, pledged to “take proactive steps necessary to ensure an inclusive and harassment-free workplace.”

The statement also says city officials have met with the firefighters who raised the concerns. They have plenty to investigate and plenty of questions to answer.

If a systemic issue exists, there’s no time to waste. And if serious accusations and problems have indeed been swept away for years, it’s well past time to figure out how to fix them, who should be held accountable and how to create a new workplace culture within the Fire Department.

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