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2 employees claim sexual harassment by HC sheriff

May 28, 2008
Two female employees of the Harrison County Sheriff's Department have filed violations of the Civil Rights Act earlier this month accusing Sheriff G. Michael Deatrick of sexual harassment.

Deana Decker, dispatch supervisor for the department, alleged that over the course of the last several years she had been continually sexually harassed by Deatrick, who allegedly grabbed her breasts "on numerous occasions" in addition to making sexually derogatory comments.

"He has held me against the wall and refused to let me leave the office," Decker alleges in the report. "On one occasion, he placed his hands down my pants."

The report says Decker, an employee of the sheriff's department since June 2000, spoke to two senior police officers about the treatment but that it had only continued. The report did not identify the two police officers.

A second complaint filed the same date, May 6, by former receptionist Melissa Graham, alleged Deatrick left Graham sexually derogatory messages on her cell phone on numerous occasions in addition to making comments about her breasts.

Graham alleges in late December 2007 she told Deatrick enough was enough and, "he was not going to talk to me that way and he was not going to touch me anymore."

Shortly after this, Graham, who has been employed with the sheriff's department since August 2004, said she was transferred from her receptionist job to the dispatch center.

Deatrick declined to comment on the complaints until he was able to finalize matters with an attorney; however, he contends Graham transferred to the dispatch center on her own.

"That was her decision," he said. "She wanted more money, so she moved over to dispatch where she was making $2 more an hour."

The county paid $55,000 last fall to settle four other civil-right lawsuits filed by former department employees. The $55,000 paid was a form of a deductible, Harrison County Auditor Pat Wolfe said.

The Harrison County Commissioners held an executive session May 19 with county attorney John E. Colin to draft an official letter asking for Deatrick to take administrative leave until findings of an investigation are complete. Though the letter points out that the charges are only allegations and that no discrimination has yet been proven, it's message is clear: "The Commissioners remain committed to providing a workplace free of discrimination," the letter reads. "To that end, during the pendency of the investigations, the Commissioners request that because the allegations have been made by employees that are still working in your department that you take an administrative leave during the investigation.

"We believe that such an act would ensure that no further allegation of discrimination or retaliation could be made."

Deatrick, who said he found out about the claims May 14 at 4:15 p.m. via a phone call, said Friday he had no intentions of stepping down.

"I won't step down. It's not up to the commissioners to ask me to step down," Deatrick said.

Commissioner James Goldman confirmed that because Deatrick is an elected official, there's not much the commissioners can do if Deatrick wants to remain in office.

"We don't have the power to make that call," Goldman said. "With the situation that the two women in question are still employees in his department, as long as he stays on, there's the possibility of more allegations. There could be other financial consequences for the county, and he would be serving the county's best interest by removing himself."

While the commissioners weren't able to force Deatrick to step down, they removed the county's emergency 911 dispatch center from his control at a special meeting May 21.

For the time being, Emergency Management Agency Director Greg Reas will be in charge of the center and supervise all dispatchers.

"The commissioners have evaluated the situation of the past few days and feel this is in the best interest of the county," Goldman said.

"It will release the sheriff of those duties," Commissioner Terry Miller said. "We're doing what's right for the employees."

The EEOC has 180 days to complete an investigation. It can issue a variety of findings, from refuting the claims to contending investigators found evidence that civil-rights violations had occurred.

Goldman said he believes continual complaints directed towards the sheriff's department could mean additional costs down the road.

"Beyond the past claims, when you have ongoing EEOC claims coming from the same department, I think it's going to reflect in insuring that department in the future," Goldman said. "Just like you'd be in a higher risk bracket if you continually wreck your car."

The county had until May 27 to respond to a request by the EEOC to provide information and records from Jan. 1, 2007, to May 5, 2008, that are relevant to the discrimination charges.

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