Female Kansas Highway Patrol staff allege harassment, retaliation in latest lawsuit against agency
Six women, all current and former Kansas Highway Patrol employees, filed suit against top agency officials in federal court Friday, alleging they discriminated against female workers and created a hostile environment in the department.
The suit alleges the agency violated federal anti-discrimination law, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the women's First Amendment rights to free speech.
It is the latest in a series of accusations leveled against KHP’s work climate, with two former officers also suing the agency for alleged retaliation when they attempted to help women report the behavior of top officials, including Superintendent Col. Herman Jones.
The group of women includes the former top human resources officer at KHP, Susan Pfannenstiel, who the suit alleges experienced inappropriate behavior herself and also suffered retribution, including diminished work duties, for helping other women report their allegations.
An investigation from the Department of Administration last year cleared Jones of charges that he sexually harassed women and that allegations against him could not be substantiated “due to the extremely strong likelihood of bias.”
But the lawsuit alleges that the investigation was improperly handled and argues that the identity of Pfannenstiel and two other women, Amber Harrington and Kimberly Meader, were revealed in the process, paving the way for retribution.
Harrington, a KHP captain who remains employed with the agency, said her supervisor gave her orders not expected of her male colleagues following the report’s release.
“You are intentionally setting me up for failure in an attempt to create the perception that I am incapable of performing my duties as a Captain,” Harrington wrote in an email to her commanding officer.
And Meader said in the suit that she felt attorneys at a law firm conducting a separate, independent investigation blamed her for the harassment.
Allegations detailed against Jones in the suit include charges that he touched a female employee’s shoulders and shook her before singing “shake it for me.” In a separate incident, the woman said Jones put his hand on her back and asked “does this make you feel uncomfortable?”
Another woman alleged Jones singled her out on account of her gender, including giving her awkward hugs rather than the handshakes he exchanged with his male colleagues.
In a separate suit filed in December, two fired majors, Scott Harrington and Josh Kellerman, said their dismissal was retaliation for helping women lodge complaints, including regarding some of the behavior detailed in Friday's lawsuit. A legislative audit found no wrongdoing in how the pair were fired.
Jones, formerly Shawnee County sheriff, was appointed by Gov. Laura Kelly in 2019. Kelly had called Jones the “right man for the job” after the previous KHP superintendent didn’t discipline an officer who was accused of an incident of domestic violence but never charged.
Kelly has defended Jones and his work at KHP, saying in July that he has her full support. Kelly's office and KHP did not immediately return requests for comment.