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Rising Sun, Sinking Agreement


Long before Marylanders knew of Clarence Thomas or Anita Hill, they had heard of the sexual harassment case of Paula Haavistola against the Rising Sun Fire Co. Now it is back in the news.

After working with the volunteer fire unit in this Cecil County town for about a year, Ms. Haavistola was suspended in March 1990 after she accused a fellow crew member of having grabbed her by the crotch and buttocks after the two returned from an ambulance run. Following Ms. Haavistola's complaint, the fire company's board took the odd action of suspending both the accused and the accuser.

In March 1991, the male firefighter's conviction on a fourth-degree sexual assault charge was reversed in circuit court. A $4.7 million lawsuit Ms. Haavistola filed in federal court against the company and the accused firefighter is still pending.

Last spring, the fire company reached an agreement with the Maryland Human Relations Commission that would reinstate both parties and adopt a policy barring sexual harassment. An amicable resolution seemed at hand. But the fire company has reneged on its agreement.

The male firefighter was reinstated all right, but the company continues to stonewall Ms. Haavistola's return to duty. It contends it doesn't have to recall her because she claimed "victory" in comments to the press following the settlement and that breached the agreement.

That's a spurious claim: The fire company can't unilaterally decide "the deal's off." Only the legal system can make that determination.

This sexual harassment case has been one of the more protracted in Maryland in recent years. Glendora Hughes, the acting general counsel for the state Human Relations Commission, says that only 5 to 10 percent of cases it handles reach the "adversarial stage," and this case is about as adversarial as they come, she indicated.

That Ms. Haavistola feels she can operate effectively in the fire company at this point is a daunting prospect, but it is certainly within her right.

The fire company may feel that Ms. Haavistola's accusation sullied its standing in the state -- it didn't do much for the town's reputation, either. But by dragging its feet on fulfilling an agreement it signed, the company turns a wound into a rupture. It is incumbent upon the institution, even more so than the individual, to bury the animosity, reinstate the suspended volunteer and pledge to approach any future allegations of harassment with far greater sensitivity, not to mention dispassion.

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