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E.D. Rights Official Faces Bias Charges, Protests

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Washington

An Education Department decision to return a regional civil-rights director to his job has prompted other employees to wage a rare public campaign in an effort to oust him.

Taylor August, who has been the director of the Dallas branch of the office for civil rights since 1979, is slated to return to that post this month after spending nine months here on temporary assignment.

A recent announcement about Mr. August's redeployment has spurred Dallas O.C.R. employees--led by representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3897--to picket outside the downtown building where they work.

Employees have also been moved to discuss their discontent with the media, contact their Congressional delegation, and contemplate legal action. In addition to writing Education Department officials, employees have sent letters to Vice President Gore and David Wilhelm, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The employees charge that Mr. August has an autocratic management style that encourages the kind of discrimination the office usually investigates.

In particular, employees say, the Dallas O.C.R. office is rife with incidents of sexual discrimination and harassment, unfair treatment of the ill and disabled, and retaliation against employees who complain about the work culture.

"I've never faced anything like this in my 28 years of service,'' said Purnell Johnson, who has worked at the Dallas O.C.R. office for more than two years.

The office is responsible for enforcing civil-rights laws at schools and colleges in Region VI, which includes Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

Report Cites 'Hostility'

The employees' accusations are corroborated in a management consultant's report made available by department officials here.

The September 1993 report was commissioned by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Norma V. Cantu after the department's equal-opportunity staff noted a series of complaints filed by employees there.

The officials recognized that "notwithstanding the individual merits of these cases, they may represent a pattern of practice or conditions that are unacceptable,'' the report by Harris Consulting Group of Columbia, Md., says. "It was noted that many of the allegations were related to previous allegations that have been made formally or informally for more than a decade.''

"The workplace is one characterized by hostility in which individuals must cope by alienation, denial, isolation, and antisocial responses,'' the report says.

More than 40 percent of the women in the office told consultants that they had been harassed, and 10 employees reported that they had been "disadvantaged because others in the office have given sexual favors in exchange for benefits of employment.''

However, the report released by the department has been excised of several anecdotes of sexual harassment and discrimination as well as the recommendations offered by the consultant, John Harris. Another report written by the consultant, covering specific equal-employment-opportunity complaints, has also not been released by department officials.

Dueling Complaints

In an interview, Mr. Harris said he suggested that Mr. August not return to Dallas.

"I felt for his sake and the sake of the agency and the sake of the employees, he should not return,'' Mr. Harris said. "There was not a form of discrimination that people felt did not exist in that office.''

Mr. August, Ms. Cantu, and Jean Peelen, who has served as the acting director in Dallas since early this year, declined to comment.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's chief of staff, Billy Webster, said Mr. August has been in management training since late March and is being returned to his former position under the watchful eye of officials here.

"He's going to have to change the way he manages,'' Mr. Webster said. "We're going to provide him training, and we're going to be vigilant.''

He also said that officials in Washington will be "responsive to the employees' fears and concerns,'' and may agree to assign Mr. August a deputy from outside the Dallas office.

But Mr. Webster also said that Mr. August's return to Dallas is part of a "larger settlement discussion,'' and acknowledged that Mr. August, who is black, has filed his own discrimination complaint with the department. He would not divulge its content.

"There's a lot going on, and it can't be boiled down to three strikes and you're out,'' the chief of staff said. "It's not that damn easy.''

Fear of Retaliation

Civil-rights employees in Dallas said in interviews that the department is reneging on a promise never to return Mr. August to their office--a commitment they said was crucial in persuading employees to cooperate with the consultant.

"We feel like we were let down by Norma and everybody else up there,'' said one longtime employee who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Webster said Mr. August's tenure in Washington was part of a routine circulation of regional directors. He acknowledged, however, that officials stationed in Washington implied that Mr. August would not return to Dallas.

The employees in Dallas, he said, "were under the impression, and that was our fault, that [Mr. August] would not be returning.''

Employees said they fear retaliation from Mr. August, and 52 of the office's 80 workers have signed a petition stating that his return "would not be in the best interest of the employees of this region, and would preclude the successful accomplishment of O.C.R.'s mission.''

"It's very easy to pick out who said what in the report,'' said Art Tedeschi, a program analyst who is the president of local 3897.

Mr. Tedeschi also said that the pending return of Mr. August damages the credibility of the office.

"It's like you see in the paper when a cop gets arrested. You wonder,'' he said. "It makes it very difficult for the people here.''

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