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Rio Salado College Employees Cope As New Leadership Works To Address Harassment

Danielle Steely is a mother of two and on track to get her Ph.D.

She works as an administrative assistant at Rio Salado’s Northern location, but began her career at the college 10 years ago, at the Tempe location.

“I enjoyed Rio Salado so much," she said. "I just felt like Rio Salado was a home away from home.”

Steely has a degree in criminal justice and hoped to work in the legal department. Instead, she worked her way up to be the college's events coordinator.

“I’ve met so many people here working with the public, with Rio Salado employees,” Steely said about her favorite part of the job.

Steely loved working with her team. Personally, she was having a hard time. After getting out of an abusive relationship, she said her supervisor started making moves on her.

At first, she said no, but ultimately ended up submitting to his advances. It was consensual, but Steely feels now she was manipulated into saying yes. She soon realized it was not a relationship she wanted to continue, and asked him to stop. But he did not.

“He knew I was in a bad place so he would use that to manipulate me, to kiss me,” she said.

She kept refusing his advances. Steely said he would come into her office and grope her or kiss her on the cheek.

Steely tried to tolerate it, but the nasty jokes about her weight and ambition kept coming.

Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. Steely filed a formal complaint with the Maricopa County Community College District in May 2017, and the Rio Salado human resources manager moved her office to a building next door.

“When she moved me, everything got worse,” Steely said.

That’s when, Steely said, the workplace became unbearable. Steely said her colleagues stopped coordinating, or outright ignored her, and she had to bend over backwards to do her job.

The in-house investigation ultimately found a pattern of inappropriate behavior. Steely’s manager denied all allegations in the investigation.

The investigator recommended Steely's supervisor attend sexual harassment training and said it was up to the college president to determine any consequences.

“That was that. It was over," she said. "And it was very emotional for me.”

“When [the HR manager] moved me, everything got worse.” — Danielle Steely

The now-former college president accepted the findings, pointing out to Steely the allegations were unsubstantiated.

However, the investigator did find it "more likely than not that the supervisor had made unwelcome sexual advances, and violated district policy and standards."

The in-house investigation also said several employees reported the same manager made advances toward them, but the "individuals stated they elected not to file a complaint because they did not believe any action would be initiated against him because of his close relationship" with the former president and HR manager.

"It was contradictory, and I was confused," Steely said, about the investigation process and findings.

One former Rio Salado employee KJZZ spoke with had similar experiences with Steely’s manager and said that he would comment on their appearance in the college café, but didn’t tell anyone because of his power as auxiliary services manager.

Steely’s manager ultimately resigned in early 2018.

Patterns Of Bad Behavior By Rio Salado Leadership

Public records obtained by KJZZ show several investigations into workplace issues at Rio Salado like harassment and bullying, starting in early 2016. One investigation about workplace culture in 2016 found a divisive attitude between past Rio Salado HR and employees looking for help.

Two Rio Salado vice presidents have resigned and retired after independent investigations into complaints of sexual harassment this year. That includes one into KJZZ leadership Jim Paluzzi, and the report found “current and past KJZZ employees expressed an extreme level of fear of retaliation or retribution by Paluzzi for participating in this investigation.”

The other, an invesigation into the former vice president of student affairs, also found a fear of retaliation in some form of employees coming forward with misconduct allegations.

The college president retired after a separate investigation into Rio Salado leadership that brought to light several more allegations against Steely’s former manager from other employees. The report also slammed former HR for not taking action when told, informally, of harassment complaints.

The same leadership report also found only one HR manager is tasked to deal with more than 1,000 Rio Salado employees, not including faculty. Steely said she saw that happen, too.

“Sure, HR is shorthanded, I understand that,” Steely said. “But when you're coming forward with such serious allegations, it's important that it's put on the front burner and you have the support you need. That was not there.”

Rio Salado Vice President of Academic Affairs Kate Smith has been appointed interim president.

“Harassment of any type will never be tolerated," Smith said. "Unequivocally, will not be tolerated. In any way.”

Smith said there is new harassment training for supervisors and eventually all employees. In a letter to employees Monday, Smith apologized to those affected.

She also said leadership has identified where they can improve communication about policies and procedures meant to protect the workplace.

Smith is extending more resources about the college’s Employee Assistance Program, too, including in-person representatives with the program.

Steely said she wasn't told, after her many meetings with district and college leadership, about this counseling resource. Instead, she took time off work, and went into a mental health facility for several days to address her worsening depression.

Finally, she sent a letter to her vice president, the president and HR about her frustrations.

“I’d been with Rio Salado for over 10 years. And I had nobody to turn to,” Steely said.

How To Fix Leftover Problems When Bad Actors Leave The Workforce

The kind of workplace culture Steeley faced is insidious, according to workplace consultant Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO of Civility Partners.

“This is an emotional trauma to go through, to be harassed, and right now organizations don’t make room to have conversations about that,” she said. "At work we're supposed to talk about tasks and goals and objectives. If I feel harassed, I'm feeling emotional and sad and scared and talking about that goes against what we're supposed to be talking about."

Mattice Zundel wasn’t involved in the investigations, but said a workplace environment like Rio Salado’s can stay oppressive, even if bad actors leave.

“HR and leaders have to make it very clear that they will address any behavioral problems," she said. "And part of the problem with that is HR is so focused on the law and the compliance, which I get. But we’ve almost forgotten about the people part of all of this.”

Mattice Zundel works with human resource departments to pinpoint problems with workplace culture, including when it comes to fears of retaliation, even if retaliation is against policy or the law.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found 75 percent of harassment victims who come forward face retaliation in some form.

"Whether or not according to the law there's a problem, there's a problem, and you have to address it," she said. "And if you don't, people will just not tell you anymore, and they'll tell a lawyer or they'll tell the press instead."

Mattice Zundel said if one instance of bad behavior is not corrected, employees feel like they can’t trust leadership in coming forward with other, worse behavior. For example, what started as rude jokes evolved into sexual harassment.

She also warns against piling on more harassment training or policies for employees because it doesn’t address the core issue of leadership not addressing bad behavior at the start.

“... [W]hatever leadership has heard, I want to hear it.” — Kate Smith, Rio Salado College interim president

“We need to stop looking at training for solutions,” Mattice Zundel said. “That’s not prevention. All of that stuff is corrective action. Prevention would be learning how to step in when there’s a rude comment in a staff meeting, learning how to empathize with coworkers: that’s all prevention and that’s what we need to be focusing on.”

Rio Salado Interim President Smith said she hopes to address that kind of culture by meeting with departments across the college.

“I just want to hear where folks are at, whatever they want to share with me, whatever leadership has heard, I want to hear it,” Smith said.

Steely moved jobs to another community college, but was overqualified for the position. Then, she was placed in Rio Salado Northern. Now, she’s interviewing for a position back at the Tempe location.

But, the damage has already been done.

“What was I thinking, I’m a horrible person," Steely said. "I still feel like that. I still feel like that every day. Why did I come forward when it feels like I’m the one being punished?”

KJZZ is licensed to the Maricopa County Community College District.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.