Crime

Ex-domestic violence center employee says harassment was dismissed. Then she was fired

The history of sexual harassment in America

Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment has been through the courts. But grassroots activism in the 1970s opened the space for a nationwide conversation, and the Civil Rights
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Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment has been through the courts. But grassroots activism in the 1970s opened the space for a nationwide conversation, and the Civil Rights

A former employee of a Lawrence domestic violence center has filed a lawsuit claiming she was unjustly fired for raising concerns about harassment by a male resident at the organization’s shelter.

The resident was on a sex offender registry, the federal lawsuit said.

Sarah Saunders alleges she experienced gender discrimination and retaliation at the shelter where she was a survivor advocate for about a year starting in June 2017. Concerns about her own safety were dismissed by her supervisor, the suit said.

Megan Stuke, executive director of the Willow Domestic Violence Center, said they haven’t been served with the lawsuit and cannot comment.

Problems surfaced in May 2018 when Saunders said the resident harassed her twice. She reported his conduct both times.

According to the lawsuit, her supervisor Felix Rodriguez challenged her for reporting the first incident.

The second time she told Rodriguez she felt unsafe, but he “directed her to write only that the advocates should be aware that the resident had problems with not respecting people’s personal boundaries,” the lawsuit said.

During a staff meeting, other employees reported worries about the resident.

After the resident was told to leave the shelter, Saunders talked to Rodriguez about how the issue had been handled.

“Rodriguez opined that Plaintiff had acted from a place of bias because of the resident’s gender,” the suit said. “He also told her that because the male resident had not touched her, she was not in any danger.”

The next month, Saunders was fired following an incident in which a resident was sick and asked Saunders not to call an ambulance. Saunders said she looked into the shelter’s policy and presented options to the resident, who chose to stay at the shelter.

She was told that incident, as well as an incident she does not recall where she left a resident unattended in the office, led to her dismissal.

The lawsuit alleges the center failed to prevent unlawful discrimination, failed to investigate a hostile work environment and manufactured performance deficiencies, among other issues.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.

Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.

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