I-TEAM: Records show City of Jacksonville Beach did not investigate harassment, abuse claims among lifeguards

Former lifeguard who came forward with complaints was terminated

A former lifeguard at Jacksonville Beach is telling her story publicly for the first time, alleging a culture of abuse and harassment among lifeguards that was tolerated by the City of Jacksonville Beach.

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A former lifeguard at Jacksonville Beach is telling her story publicly for the first time, alleging a culture of abuse and harassment among lifeguards that was tolerated by the City of Jacksonville Beach.

“This is a very pivotal moment, because I’ve wanted to speak up about this for years, but it’s really scary,” said former Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguard Nikki Emerson.

The News4JAX I-TEAM uncovered documents showing that lifeguard took her complaints to the city, but the city did not investigate.

Emerson became a lifeguard for the City of Jacksonville Beach in 2012.

“I was 16 years old,” she said. “It was my first job ever.”

For seven years, she worked for the city as a member of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue. She also volunteered to watch Jacksonville Beach as a member of the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps. At the time, the Corps recruited and trained lifeguards for the city and provided volunteer lifeguards on Sundays and holidays.

“I have passion and the love for lifesaving,” Emerson said.

But she said to be a lifeguard, she endured abuse and harassment.

“It’s probably the most toxic culture I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” Emerson said.

She told the I-TEAM that she went through a voluntary initiation ritual with the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps called “the beltline” at a private party, with recruits running through a line of Corps members beating them with belts. She says she was 16 at the time.

“I was a child,” Emerson said. “I mean, it was my first job ever — I knew nothing different. And I had just gone through the hardest training in my entire life. And I wasn’t going to not be one of them, you know?”

She also said she felt sexism kept her managers at Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue from promoting women, saying her manager, Ocean Rescue Capt. Rob Emahiser, didn’t show up for her interview when she was up for a promotion and telling her, “Go get a ******* restaurant job. We don’t promote women here. You have too many hormones and emotions.”

Records show Emerson brought allegations about the beltline and her manager’s comments to human resources at the City of Jacksonville Beach in July 2019. But according to all the city records of the investigation, no one was ever questioned, except her boss, who denied making sexist comments.

He also denied it to the I-TEAM.

When asked if he made the comment alleged by Emerson, Emahiser responded, “No. I have lots of women. No, I can’t really comment on that, but I have a female lieutenant here right now, you know, and I’m sure she wouldn’t agree with that.”

Emerson gave the city’s HR department the names of two women who shared her perception about sexism and harassment.

The I-TEAM was also able to reach one of them, and they corroborated Emerson’s allegations about sexism. They also told the I-TEAM that no one with the city ever followed up with her.

Instead of human resources continuing to follow up on Emerson’s complaints, the investigation was assigned to the department of parks and recreation. The department director, Jason Phitides, wrote, “Based on our experience of knowledge of Rob’s leadership and behavior over the past several years, we had no reason to believe these allegations had any merit.” The records say nothing about interviewing any witnesses.

Labor attorney Tad Delegal said that if the city failed to follow up, the lack of proper investigation could expose the city to liability.

“All I can tell you is that we did an investigation internally. We followed proper protocols, and that was handled in the appropriate manner,” Phitides told the I-TEAM when the I-TEAM pointed out that there is no documentation of the city looking into Emerson’s claims.

According to Charles Bond, who is the past president of the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps board of directors, no one from the city reached out to the Corps about Emerson’s allegations about the beltline initiation ritual.

“This is the first time we’ve heard of it in the last week,” Bond told the I-TEAM in late May 2022.

He said the Corps would have investigated if they had known about the complaint.

“The board of directors has come out very clearly, unequivocally, in saying the beltline should not be run,” Bond said.

Bond said the beltline happened in public on the beach until 1998, and the board isn’t aware of it continuing in private, as Emerson alleged.

“Looking back on that, realizing that as me now, I would never — if I were to go and join now, I would have never let these old men whip me with belts to become a lifeguard,” Emerson said. “It’s like I feel disgusted and degraded and, like ashamed of myself for being like for allowing that to happen.”

The I-TEAM said to Phitides, “Those are allegations of abuse involving children.” He responded, “I don’t recall those. Again, I’d have to look at the files. So you know, at this stage, I’ve not got much to say to you.”

According to city records, Phitides wrote they would put Emerson back on the schedule for one day to determine if she wanted to continue to work as a lifeguard — but only if she agreed to meet with him, the manager she was accusing, and possibly and other officials.

Records show Emerson met with them in October 2019 — all of the men, including the man she accused of harassment.

Phitides made a report about the meeting, writing he trusted the leadership there. He also defended Emahiser, writing, “He had always acted very professionally.” One of the officials present said Emerson hadn’t always been “complimentary about the organization or its leadership.” The meeting ended with Phitides writing Emerson “committed to be a role model to other guards to help promote respect and a positive attitude,” and “I believe the meeting ended with outstanding issues being resolved.” The report also says another Ocean Rescue employee apologized to Emerson for not rescheduling her interview so her supervisor, Emahiser, could be present.

Emerson said after she complained, Ocean Rescue changed its staffing policy to force her out. In the notes from the October meeting, Phitides wrote, “Rob Emahiser commented that available work slots will be offered to dependable lifeguards based [on] hours worked.”

The I-TEAM asked Emahiser about Emerson’s complaints about sexism in the hiring process and about whether she was taken off the schedule because she complained.

“No. Not true,” he responded. “I can’t say anything other than Nikki did a great job as a lifeguard, but she’s not here enough to be a full-time employee. She likes to travel the world.”

Records show that a month after her final meeting with city officials, Emerson was terminated.

“It’s unfortunate that I was part of it for so long because it’s affecting my life forever. And the thing is — is that’s why no one’s no one speaks up, because, you know, you’re against all of these guys.”

According to records, Emerson told HR back in 2019 that she’d been wanting to come forward for more than a year but feared retaliation. She’s doing so now because she says she wants lifeguarding at Jacksonville Beach to be safe for everyone.

Jacksonville Beach’s city manager told the I-TEAM that the city takes accusations of this nature seriously and that the HR department handled these events in a manner deemed appropriate at the time.

The city also said Thursday that because the volunteers in the Corps were not employees, they could not require the Corps members to comply with city policy and HR. However, a Department of Labor investigation completed last year that the I-TEAM obtained Thursday found the Corps and the city lifeguards were so intertwined that the organizations were not separate entities. The question of volunteers versus employees is one of several issues that led the city to stop using the Corps.

READ: City of Jacksonville Beach’s written response | Department of Labor report completed in 2021

About the Authors:

I-TEAM and general assignment reporter