Sexual assault sees zero tolerance at DLA; advocates available any hour, any day

By Dianne Ryder

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

Sexual violence is among the most serious trauma a person can experience, yet it’s one of the most underreported crimes in the workplace. The Department of Defense is striving to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment, among civilians and military members — and the Defense Logistics Agency is at the forefront thanks to a robust Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.

DLA Director Army Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams emphasized a safe working environment for all employees is his priority.

“DLA’s focused support for the SAPR program reinforces the understanding by everyone that incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault will not be tolerated within our agency,” Williams said.

“Our leaders and supervisors are committed to maintaining a positive climate characterized by dignity and respect, free from harassment, bullying, discrimination and retaliation against people who report such incidents.”

The program supports the “Sustain our People” objective of the DLA People and Culture Plan, released in November 2017. The objective calls for promoting “awareness and availability of programs and resources that contribute to workforce resiliency” and maintaining “individual and organizational focus on the safety and security of our workforce.”

DLA’s SAPR program began with Williams’ predecessor, Air Force Lt. Gen. Andy Busch. In March 2017, Busch signed DLA’s 2017 Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month Proclamation, joined by members of the agency’s executive board.

DLA Human Resources Director Brad Bunn said when DLA created the program, HR officials weren’t able to adopt the military’s prevention programs wholesale.

“Things work much differently in a predominantly civilian organization. A lot of thought went into developing our program to best meet the needs of our workforce,” Bunn said. “DLA aimed to create a robust program to educate our workforce and support victims of sexual violence, and we built a really strong program in a relatively short time.”

In just under two years, DLA established the SAPR Office within DLA Human Resources and fully staffed the program with 10 experienced SAPR professionals, Bunn said.

“We also created the worldwide 24-hour DLA SAPR hotline to provide immediate contact with a credentialed sexual assault response coordinator, known as a SARC, who can provide advocacy and crisis intervention to victims.”

Renée Ferranti, DLA sexual assault prevention and response program manager, said the agency’s program has been strengthened by relationships DLA has built with other defense agencies.

Though the program is still fairly new, Ferranti said DLA is “out in front” from a DoD perspective,

In addition to Ferranti, DLA Headquarters employs a full-time SAPR policy specialist and a dedicated SARC who supports headquarters staff directorates, as well as SARCs assigned to each major subordinate command. And DLA SAPR officials coordinate closely with their counterparts in the Defense Department so help is available to DLA employees across the country and around the world. The existing DoD SAPR program has resources worldwide. “We’re really just inserting ourselves into an existing network of service branch SARCs,” Ferranti said. “We’re trying to embed ourselves so we can provide the same services across the board; regardless of where folks are.”

The SAPR staff want to ensure the workforce knows sexual violence is a criminal offense, punishable under state, federal and local law. It happens to men and women, civilians and military members. And it often causes survivors psychological trauma long after the event.

In addition, sexual violations hurt productivity and mission readiness, and they undermine the organization’s core values.

Ferranti referred to recent media attention to the prevalence of assault and harassment among celebrities and politicians, but she said no one should see sexual assault as a new problem.

“[It’s] driving a lot of conversation, and I’m thankful for that. But on the flip side, what we’re seeing is that everything is being lumped together,” Ferranti said.

Agency SARCs seek to clarify confusion employees might associate with the varying terms used to describe sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. No misconduct should be minimized, but an incident that involves physical contact that is sexual in nature without the person’s consent is a sexual assault. We want people to know how to properly report such an incident. 

Mandatory training for all employees is now available via DLA’s Learning Management System. Ferranti said the language used in the instruction may cause employees to be uncomfortable, but it’s important to know that while a sexual assault case could also involve harassment, not every sexual harassment case involves assault. The defining factors of sexual assault are physical contact and lack of consent.

Verdino agreed that employees who file reports may be reluctant to call an incident sexual assault.

“A lot of cases involve some kind of physical touch, so it really is sexual assault. But people say the words ‘sexual harassment’ because that’s a ‘safe’ term that doesn’t sound as bad as sexual assault,” she said. “It’s important for people to know that if they’re not sure if it’s sexual harassment or sexual assault, that they can come to us and we can help them navigate the system.”

Ferranti noted that some employees still feel a stigma in being a survivor of sexual assault, and some fear using that very term. However, it’s important that we are able to identify incidents and respond appropriately.

“If there’s an alleged offender who’s a military member, commanders can take steps immediately; they have more control over some of the actions that can be taken, such as [relocating] people,” she said. “Whereas in the civilian world, there are different confines and parameters, but there are still options that will be considered for safety and well-being of the victim.”

Ferranti said SAPR updates are included as part of the quarterly health-of-agency briefing for all the DLA director’s programs:  military personnel, fill rates, readiness, grievances, labor relations, morale, and wellness and fitness plans.

SARCs manage and track cases through the administrative process and the criminal justice system. They also help victims find counseling and medical treatment. And of course, the SAPR office works in tandem with the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity office.

“That partnership is really helpful,” Ferranti explained. Sometimes employees may start out seeking assistance from EEO counselors, but as conversations unfold, EEO personnel may identify “red flags,” and refer the employee to a SARC. “That’s how some of our cases have actually come to fruition.”

SARCs at the major subordinate commands are doing their own health-of-command briefings, Ferranti said.

“They’re looking at different programs and the impact or needs of the organization,” she said. “From a resiliency standpoint, they’re making sure folks get what they need, but they’re also looking at the big picture.”

SARCs also maintain working relationships with rape crisis centers and other local coalitions, said Andrea Verdino, sexual assault prevention and response specialist.

“Our SARCs attend the state coalitions to pair with them and get information about new resources,” she said. “If they do an outreach event, we might host a table or attend a training event to get more information or talk about our program.”

“We rely on those resources and the community because of our population being mostly civilian,” Ferranti said. “We have to have the rapport with all those community partners, and when you have those relationships built, it’s easier to access those resources and know what’s available.”

Ferranti and Verdino also explained that how a person chooses to report an incident can result in various scenarios. For example, a supervisor with knowledge of an incident must report it to higher authorities. Co-workers may feel morally obligated to file a report on behalf of a friend who’s been assaulted, even though disclosure may put the relationship at risk.

The main route employees who have been assaulted should take is to call the toll-free hotline, Verdino said. The hotline is preferred so that if an employee cannot reach the SARC immediately during business hours, he or she should not have to wait to make the report, Ferranti said. Because the number is supported 24 hours a day, every day, “we will coordinate with whoever is the appropriate person,” she said.

“And that goes for supervisors, too,” Ferranti added. “We don’t want a supervisor having knowledge of something [on a Friday] but feeling they have to wait until Monday to find out what they should do,” she said. “DLA commanders are very supportive, across the board. Whether it’s the MSC commanders or the [DLA Headquarters] director, they want to do the right thing.”

Despite the agency’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and sexual harassment among civilians and military members, raising awareness is an ongoing effort, Ferranti said. It includes regular briefings to DLA’s executive board, as well as in town halls and new employee orientations.

Bunn agrees that agency leaders’ dedication to maintaining a workplaces where employees feel safe and supported is key to the program’s success.

“DLA leaders at all levels are committed to ensuring a safe environment where we take care of our own,” he said. “The SAPR program is an important tool for maintaining such an environment.”