Editorials

The more we know about sexual misconduct, the more we realize we don’t know

Tyann Sorrell appears at a 2016 news conference on the legal settlement between UC Berkeley, the former law school dean, Sujit Choudhry, and his former assistant, Sorrell, who said Choudhry sexually harassed her. Sorrell had sued her former boss and the university over the harassment allegations. Choudry in turn had sued the school for singling him out for additional investigation as the school looked into several cases of sexual harassment. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Tyann Sorrell appears at a 2016 news conference on the legal settlement between UC Berkeley, the former law school dean, Sujit Choudhry, and his former assistant, Sorrell, who said Choudhry sexually harassed her. Sorrell had sued her former boss and the university over the harassment allegations. Choudry in turn had sued the school for singling him out for additional investigation as the school looked into several cases of sexual harassment. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) AP

The question by now isn’t whether sexual harassment is epidemic, but just how advanced the problem has become. Unfortunately, getting an answer is far harder than it should be, a point underscored by The Sacramento Bee’s Marjie Lundstrom in an eye-opening examination of legal payouts by California’s largest employer, state government.

Focusing just on the state’s executive branch and higher education system, Lundstrom’s report published on Sunday makes it clear that that the highest profile complaints – from Hollywood actresses, Olympic gymnasts, performers at Sunday night’s Grammys, lobbyists and staffers working in the state Capitol building – are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Where the paperwork was produced, the scope of the problem was stunning. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in particular appears to have a serious problem.

Records at state agencies and public universities yielded nearly 100 sexual harassment settlements just in the past three fiscal years, totaling more than $25 million, and that doesn’t count additional legal fees, or include smaller agencies or the judicial branch.

There was the counselor alleged to have coerced kids in a Chino correctional facility into sex acts; the Cal State Fullerton professor who allegedly told a student to masturbate and report back on her progress; the Corcoran prison guard who allegedly ogled and groped a female colleague; the complaint of anti-gay abuse at the California State Lottery warehouse in Rancho Cucamonga. More notoriously, there was the harassment claim by the executive assistant to the now-former dean of the UC Berkeley law school.

The data, however, may not tell the full story. As with payouts in the legislative branch, unearthing even these cases required herculean effort. The state doesn’t specifically code complaints for sexual harassment, so Lundstrom had to file California Public Records Act requests with 40 state entities, some of which were less than forthcoming. The University of California still hasn’t coughed up 2016-17 records, insisting they were “not finalized.” Really?

Where the paperwork was produced, the scope of the problem was stunning. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in particular, appears to have a serious problem. Nearly 40 percent of the cases and 60 percent of the payouts stemmed from sexual misconduct in the state prison system.

The 36 settlements at CDCR most typically involved male correctional officers grabbing, harassing or exposing themselves to female subordinates or co-workers. Clearly, there’s an oversight issue, but where is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, always so solicitous of its members? Where’s the male-dominated prison guards’ union’s concern for its female rank and file?

The largest single settlement, $10 million, came out of a heartbreaking suit filed by four young men who said they were sexually abused by a correctional counselor in the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in San Bernardino County. That case underscored another key way in which California’s institutions have enabled this problem: The state appealed so aggressively that the ordeal lasted more than a decade and increased the cost to taxpayers substantially.

Some change is underway. In the aftermath of the Cal law school dean’s case, a drawn-out mess that cost the university $1.7 million, UC President Janet Napolitano tightened policy so that campus chancellors have less say over how sexual harassment cases are handled. And on Thursday, the state Senate is expected to vote on Assembly Bill 403, extending whistleblower protections to legislative workers who report violations such as sexual misconduct.

But this epidemic can’t be truly addressed until we quantify the problem. State Controller Betty Yee has taken the lead, sensibly moving to at least have a separate code for state legal payouts for sexual harassment and urging investment in a “Know Your Rights” campaign for both public and private sector workers.

We should do more. If this much harassment is happening on the public sector payroll, how much abuse must there be among factory and farmworkers, away from the spotlight?

“It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion,” Yee told an editorial board member. “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

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