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NEWS
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Noose and photo create 'hostile work environment' at FAU
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By SERGIO N. CANDIDO
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William Ehrhardt decided he needed to show his staff members at the FAU parking enforcement office something from his past police days to get them motivated.

He chose a photo showing him in police riot gear, working at a 1991 Ku Klux Klan rally in Boca Raton.

The KKK picture, coupled with a hangman's noose displayed in his office, created a "hostile work environment," a university investigation has found.

Ehrhardt was formally reprimanded soon after by his supervisor, FAU Chief of Police Charles Lowe. But the woman who filed the complaint that led to the probe maintained she still was subjected to antagonistic treatment at work after she expressed her discomfort.

Other workers in his office have said Ehrhardt made a point of showing them the picture, and that he said the noose was there "just in case." They also have heard him complain about hearing workers at a Publix supermarket converse in Spanish.

In the investigation's interview, Ehrhardt, who has been the office supervisor for three years, denies intending any offense by showing the KKK picture and the noose, which his attorney argued was actually a truck hitch.

Ehrhardt declined to comment for this story.

The university denied his appeal of the reprimand in February, and he's been ordered to attend cultural sensitivity training.

The birth of a problem

The case has its origins in a complaint filed to FAU's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs on Nov. 5, 2010, by Sandy Torres, a police service technician whose job includes issuing parking tickets and monitoring university traffic on a golf cart.

Torres said in her complaint that Ehrhardt called her into the office in October and showed her the KKK picture.

"As he handed me the picture, he said the following words: 'Look, I marched with the Klan,' " Torres said, according to the complaint. "I felt sick to my stomach from such prideful comment."

The picture, taken by a Sun Sentinel photographer during a 1991 KKK rally in Boca Raton, shows Ehrhardt wearing a riot gear helmet, displaying a baton in his hand and escorting members of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan is an organization created in the late 1860s that sought violent means to advocate for white supremacy.

Torres declined to comment for this story.

In her complaint, Torres said she found the photo offensive because she is a Latina, and because Ehrhardt's remark suggested that he agreed with the Klan's racist beliefs. Torres also mentioned several occasions on which she felt she was being singled out because of her ethnic background and gender.

She added that Ehrhardt was ignoring her.

"I will still say good morning, but I will not receive a response," Torres said in the complaint. "This has made me feel less than equal to my male counterparts."

FAU's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, which investigates cases of discrimination in the workplace, found in its investigation that at least three employees in the office of Parking and Transportation have seen either the photo or the noose.

A white female employee said she had noticed the picture on Ehrhardt's desk and the noose hanging from a corkboard in plain sight of anyone coming into his office.

When she asked him why he had a noose hanging in his office, he replied, "just in case." She said she wondered why he would have these items and what purpose he wanted them to serve.

She added that Ehrhardt once told her that while in a Publix supermarket, he complained to management when he overheard the store's employees speaking in Spanish to each other.

Another employee said she was passing by Ehrhardt's office when he called her over and told her he had something he wanted to show her. Before showing anything, she stated that he said, "I walked with the Klan," and then proceeded to show the picture.

A third employee said he saw the picture, but was not offended because he didn't understand the potential connotation. He also said he heard his boss say "damn Hispanics!" after breaking up an altercation.

During his investigation interview, Ehrhardt denied most of the allegations against him.

A former Boca Raton police officer who served on the force for 23 years, Ehrhardt said he didn't find anything wrong with the picture — that he meant it as a way to "motivate them." He denied ever saying that he "walked" or "marched" with the Klan.

When asked about the purpose of having a noose in his office, he simulated tying a rope around his neck and pulling up his hand indicating his own hanging, according to the investigative report. He said there were days at work when he felt he could hang himself.

The 59-year-old also said he didn't see anything wrong or offensive with the hangman's noose -- something that some say has a negative connotation because it reminds them of the lynching of African Americans in the post-Civil War South.

Ehrhardt denies the Publix incident ever happened. However, he said he knew it was against Publix's policy for employees to speak a language other than English in the workplace.

The Office of Equal Opportunity Programs said in its report that it found no evidence showing that Torres was discriminated against based on her national origin or gender. But the investigator did find evidence showing that University Regulation 5.010, which prohibits discrimination and harassment, had been violated.

"The display of a hangman's noose coupled with a picture of him walking with the Klan … created the atmosphere of a hostile work environment," said the report, dated Jan. 4.

Resistance and decline

Ed Rowe, associate director of Equal Opportunity Programs, conducts the investigations. According to Kristine Gobbo, FAU assistant vice president of media relations, after a determination by the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, the situation is referred to Human Resources.

A Human Resources representative then meets with the employee's supervisor to determine if disciplinary action is appropriate and what type or level of action should be taken.

Gobbo said the actions taken depend on several variables.

Some of these, she said, include whether the employee knew or should have known that the behavior is not acceptable; whether the proposed discipline is consistent with past treatment of employees who have committed similar offenses; whether the severity of the proposed discipline is reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense; and how it relates to the employee's past record of work performance, conduct and discipline.

Gobbo also said that although Human Resources works with the supervisor of the employee's department to determine the appropriate discipline for the specific situation, the supervisor makes the final decision about discipline.

In this case, Ehrhardt's supervisor is FAU Chief of Police Charles Lowe because the Police Department directly oversees Parking and Transportation -- the office responsible for issuing parking citations, car decals and providing the on-campus shuttle service.

On Jan. 24, Lowe issued a letter of reprimand to Ehrhardt.

"The display of a noose in your office was insensitive and inappropriate," Lowe wrote. "Your actions were perceived in a negative manner."

Lowe also wrote that he believes display of the picture was not inappropriate, but the context in which it was presented could lead to it being interpreted in the wrong way. Lowe ordered Ehrhardt to attend training in cultural sensitivity.

University records do not indicate whether he completed that training.

Lowe declined to comment for this story.

On Feb. 14, Ehrhardt's attorney, George Tucker, wrote asking the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs via letter to have the reprimand removed from his client's personnel file because it was "too severe under all the facts and circumstances of this case."

The letter argued that the report fails to recite the specific paragraph of Regulation 5.010 that was violated by the display of the photograph.

"[The] finding that the photograph, in and of itself, is discriminatory and/or harassing [is] blatantly incorrect," Tucker wrote.

Regarding the noose, Tucker called it a rope knot and said Ehrhardt used it in his job.

"He used the knot in his official university duties in an attempt to complete a taut line hitch to secure cones in the bed of his University pick-up truck," Tucker wrote.

He added that the report omitted this information, leaving the incorrect impression that the rope knot in question had only one use — that of a hangman's noose.

The letter reached the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs on Feb. 16.

In an undated letter, Paula Behul, director of Equal Opportunity Programs, told Ehrhardt that his appeal was denied because there were no grounds to it.

"[During the investigation] Mr. Ehrhardt never advised the investigator that the noose was used to perform his duties at the University," Behul wrote.

"Regardless, Mr. Ehrhardt admitted he should not have displayed the rope as he did."

Both the picture and the noose, which were in his office during the summer, were removed after the discrimination complaint.

Bad omen

Public records suggest William Ehrhardt may have had trouble relating to other employees.

According to Sandy Torres' discrimination complaint, Ehrhardt asked her at one point if she and other employees had a "collective and cooperative personal agenda against him."

"I responded I could not answer for any of my peers but for myself," Torres said in her discrimination complaint.

Ehrhardt made a similar comment on a 2006-07 performance report written by Roody Prato, his supervisor at the time.

"William's overall demeanor has had a negative impact on the synergy of the department," Prato said in his report. "I have observed on several occasions that William walks by an employee or enters the Police Service Technician Office without saying a word to anyone or his supervisor."

At the time, Ehrhardt worked as a police service technician.

In his latest performance appraisal from 2010, his current direct supervisor, Assistant Director of Parking and Transportation James Johnson, said that "[Ehrhardt's] interactions with his staff and co-workers demonstrate how much he genuinely cares about both his job and co-workers."

 
 

 
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Noose and photo create 'hostile work environment' at FAU