Pentagon panel abandons setting standards on bias

April 29, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After a year's work, a Pentagon equal opportunity task force has thrown in the towel on establishing uniform procedures for how the armed services should deal with sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

"We just couldn't get there," said Edwin Dorn, the Defense Department's top civilian personnel official, who chaired the panel with Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall. "We were just not convinced of the need for standards across the services."

Their reason: the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines operate in such different ways that finding a common approach to handling allegations of harassment and discrimination proved impossible.

"They operate in different environments," Mr. Dorn said. He noted, for example, that while it would be possible to put a full-time equal opportunity counselor on an Air Force base, it would be difficult to find space for a similar officer aboard a nuclear attack submarine.

Mr. Dorn told a meeting of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a group that advises the defense secretary on female uniformed service, that any attempt to "slice through" the problem of imposing uniform procedures would have involved issues beyond equal opportunity, including staffing policy.

The equal opportunity panel was created in May after a parade of service members testified before Congress that their complaints of harassment and discrimination were mishandled by military authorities.

Mr. Dorn said the panel had decided to recommend that Defense Secretary William J. Perry adopt standard definitions of the offenses and allow each service to work out its own procedures for dealing with them.

"The services are going to have to figure out exactly how to get there," Mr. Dorn said. "We want standards. We don't think we can standardize everything that is going on in the services, simply because of the different ways in which they operate."

He added: "I don't think it's going to be a heartburn issue."

But Sue Ann Tempero, chair of the advisory group on women in the services, pointed out that the Pentagon was emphasizing joint war-fighting operations between the services and asked why the same approach could not be taken on procedures for dealing with harassment and bias.

"I think it really deserves more discussion," she said. "I realize they are struggling. It seems to me it would be feasible for them to set some parameters." She cited the duration of investigations as one standard that could be imposed on all the services.

Mr. Dorn outlined to the advisory group the recommendations his panel will make to the defense secretary.

They included:

* Accountability of military leaders for equal opportunity. This would be done through annual performance reports. "In today's military, a breach of that kind would be taken pretty seriously. Your career would be severely affected," Mr. Dorn said.

* Standard legal definitions of harassment and discrimination. Currently, the services each have their own definitions.

* Creation by the services of formal and informal systems for dealing with complaints of harassment and discrimination.

* Investigation training. "What is important is not who [investigates], but that person ought to be trained," he said.

* The right of appeal, with the individual service secretaries acting as the ultimate judges.

Mr. Perry will decide which recommendations to accept and then issue a directive to the service chiefs to implement them.

"We are not in this [equal-opportunity] business because a bunch of generals have had an attack of racial enlightenment," said Mr. Dorn, noting that the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not apply to the military. "We are in this business because the military draws from as broad a cross-section of the American public as we can.

"We recognize the only way the military can work effectively is to ensure that everyone is provided the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of the unit. A military organization engaged in operations is not a place where you want resentment based on race, sex or ethnic origins to surface."

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