Missouri Southern State University sent interns to the Missouri Capitol for 20 years.
That ended last April, when the school pulled all its interns from the Statehouse in the first step of what would eventually become a texting scandal that forced former House Speaker John Diehl to resign and caused the Missouri House to completely re-evaluate its intern and sexual harassment policies.
Now, with the 2016 session underway, school officials say they aren’t ready to send students back to Jefferson City.
“We won’t have any interns in the Capitol this year,” said Scott Meeker, a spokesman for Missouri Southern. “It was decided to take a year to evaluate the program and move forward.”
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Yet Missouri Southern appears to be the exception, not the rule.
There are 60 interns currently working in the Missouri House, a number higher than this point last year and expected to increase in the coming weeks.
University officials and current interns interviewed by The Star last week said the scandals of 2015 — which also included the resignation of state Sen. Paul LeVota over allegations he sexually harassed interns — didn’t dampen enthusiasm for the Capitol internship program.
“The students are very much aware of what happened last year,” said Candace Young, internship director at Truman State University in Kirksville. “But I didn’t have any students that expressed that it was a concern in whether they would do the internship.”
Since the dramatic end of the 2015 legislative session, which saw the Missouri House grind to a halt after The Star revealed Diehl’s relationship with a 19-year-old Missouri Southern intern, numerous new policies have been put into place aimed at better protecting interns and improving the Capitol’s culture.
Relationships between elected state representatives and legislative staff or interns were banned.
An outside attorney will now investigate any harassment complaints against a legislator.
Annual sexual harassment training is now mandatory for representatives and their staff.
And an ombudsman position has been created to serve as a liaison between interns, House administration and universities.
“It’s great that the House now has someone in place to deal with issues, both positive and negative, as they come up,” said Judy Kempker, assistant director of administration in the Missouri House and the new intern ombudsman. “As someone with a daughter getting ready to start college, I think a Capitol internship is a wonderful opportunity to see state government in action.”
Last week, members of the Missouri House participated in the mandatory sexual harassment training. The St. Louis law firm of McMahon Berger conducted the training, which included a 47-page PowerPoint presentation.
“The training was in person and lasted about two hours,” said Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat and one of two legislative intern coordinators in the House. “It was a two-way conversation. There were very good questions being asked. Everyone took it very seriously.”
Kelly McCambridge, a Kansas City lawyer who specializes in employment law, said she was impressed with the tone of the new House policies and believes they represent “a cultural shift in how Jeff City treats their interns and how they view sexual harassment.”
Additionally, she said, “I have heard only good things about the state reps’ sexual harassment training from earlier in the week.”
The new intern and harassment policies were approved by the House Administration and Accounts Committee. Rep. Mike Leara, a St. Louis Republican and the committee’s chairman, said he’s proud of the work that’s been done on the issue.
“It was time to tighten things up,” he said. “And we feel good about it, and we’re confident we’re in a better place than we were.”
Leara admits it may take a session or more to work out the kinks of the program and said he’s “open to any changes anyone in the House may have to suggest. But I think we have a good policy in place at this time.”
Robynn Kuhlmann, state government internship coordinator at the University of Central Missouri, said participation in the internship program from her school is down this year because of the long delay in the House unveiling its new rules.
The House rules weren’t finalized until November, and Kuhlmann said interns from her school are historically chosen in October.
In fact, one student dropped out of the program over the delays, Kuhlmann said.
“He said that he decided not to take the internship because the House notified him too late,” she said. “He had to set his work schedule and courses for the semester, so the late response was in conflict with his ability to organize those schedules.”
The scandals of the last year have caused Kuhlmann to take a hard look at how UCM’s Capitol internship program functions, especially since it was one of her interns who made the initial sexual harassment complaint against LeVota.
The key difference this year, she said, is she’s going to be in Jefferson City more frequently.
“I try to get there once every three weeks. But I do check in with them every week,” she said. “I may have more physical presence in Jefferson City this year. And one thing I’ll try to do is connect the students with each other.”
That would line UCM up more closely with Truman State’s program, which includes a weekly class taught every Monday in Jefferson City by a faculty member, Young said.
University officials are also excited about the recent news that U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill contributed $10,000 toward setting up an intern hotline for those who feel they’ve been harassed.
The money was from a personal account, not from taxpayers or her campaign account. It was given to the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
McCaskill has talked openly about the harassment she experienced in the Statehouse 40 years ago.
Colleen Coble, executive director of Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the term “hotline” is a misnomer since the goal is to reach students through every available technological means — texting, social media and phone.
“There has to be somebody you can talk to that’s not going to tell on you,” Coble said. “While you’re trying to figure out what’s happened to you, what are your options, whether you’re OK, you need someone you can talk to while you make your decisions.”
While inspired by the scandals at the Capitol, the program won’t be solely focused on Statehouse interns, Coble said. It could be a resource for any interns from Missouri universities regardless of where they are working.
The hope is to have a plan together by April, she said, which means it won’t be in place before the end of the 2016 legislative session.
“We’re asking the question, ‘Are we really responding to the needs of students who are the victims of sexual harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault?’ ” Coble said. “Missouri has the opportunity to really be innovative.”