Juvenile corrections officers sue, alleging sexual harassment

EVERETT — Three women who work as juvenile corrections officers have stepped up allegations of sexual harassment against male colleagues by suing Snohomish County.

Like the damage claim they filed earlier this year, the lawsuit levels accusations against Ron Gipson, a juvenile corrections officer who’s also the Everett City Council’s senior member. It describes a locker-room atmosphere at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center. The women say they felt threatened, often physically, by male co-workers and supervisors.

“Sexual slur, insult and innuendo pervaded the workplace,” the suit alleges. “Female employees could not work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult.”

Gipson, on Thursday, said he wanted to read the lawsuit before deciding whether to comment. In February, he called the allegations in the damage claim “completely devoid of facts.”

The lawsuit accuses Gipson and other male employees of talking about female co-workers’ anatomy, commenting on their sexual orientation and making obscene hand gestures at them.

The suit was filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court. It names the county as well as the county’s juvenile and superior court administration.

The plaintiffs are Dee Thayer, Barbara Lucken and Karen Hastings. All three have worked in juvenile corrections at the county since the late 1990s, slightly less time than Gipson.

The Seattle attorney for the women also represented three separate female Denney corrections workers who sued the county in 2004 and later reached a $500,000 settlement. Robin Williams Phillips said the problems her previous clients brought up a decade ago have yet to be addressed by management. Phillips also said she doubts an ongoing internal investigation the county is conducting will resolve the situation.

“I think that appropriate discipline needs to be meted out,” Phillips said. “Until they are willing to take the step to really overhaul the management of Denney, this locker-room mentality is never really going to change.”

The suit does not specify a damage amount. The claim Phillips filed on her clients’ behalf in February asked for $450,000 each, plus attorney’s fees.

The county plans to review the suit and prepare a defense, said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.

Dysfunction among Denney’s corrections staff isn’t limited to the claims in the lawsuit. There also are counter claims of racism, and fights involving organized labor.

Gipson and two other Denney employees who, like him, are black men, say they have been subjected to a racially motivated smear campaign orchestrated by some co-workers.

The accusation comes against the backdrop of squabbles over union representation, namely a potential split in the union that represents Denney supervisors. Gipson, who is not a supervisor, also has clashed with local affiliate of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees over the quality of their representation.

Gipson and his supervisor, Luther Weathersby, remain on paid administrative leave, said Bob Terwilliger, the county’s Superior Court administrator.

The allegations have not directly affected Gipson’s role as an elected official in Everett.

The lawsuit accuses Weathersby and other unnamed supervisors of helping to create the atmosphere of bad workplace behavior.

The county has hired an attorney to attempt to get to the bottom of the various discrimination charges.

It won’t come cheap. Last month, the County Council agreed to pay Mill Creek attorney Marcella Fleming Reed up to $200,000 to complete the work.

The lawyer’s team has finished interviews with all of the approximately 60 employees involved with the situation, county human resources director Bridget Clawson said. Findings of the investigation won’t be available for at least another month.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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