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Missouri legislators suggest an intern dress code, but speaker nixes the idea

Lawmakers are weighing in with their suggestions on how to best improve the Missouri House intern policy, and one early notion kicked around was establishing an intern dress code.

The idea was greeted with disdain by Democrats and set off a firestorm on social media, with critics arguing that it was victim-blaming that would do nothing to address the problem of sexual harassment.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill sent letters Tuesday afternoon to the lawmakers who proposed the idea, saying it “reeks of a desire to avoid holding fully accountable those who would prey upon young women and men seeking to begin honorable careers in public service.”

And not long after the discussion of a dress code became public Tuesday morning, House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, released a statement putting the idea to rest.

The group of lawmakers officially tasked with developing a new intern policy “did not recommend, and the House will not be implementing, changes to the dress code as the House already has in place a code that applies to all members, staff and interns equally,” Richardson said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

Rep. Kevin Engler, a Farmington Republican, was chosen to lead the effort to craft a new policy after House Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign following revelations by The Star that he exchanged sexually suggestive texts with a 19-year-old House intern. Two months later, Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, announced his resignation after two interns accused him of sexual harassment.

Engler sent out a list of suggested changes to lawmakers Monday evening, which included ideas such as a minimum number of college credit hours and GPA for participation, mandatory training for interns and supervisors, and the creation of an ombudsman program.

He asked his colleagues to “review and send any specific recommendations regarding these criteria in writing as soon as possible.”

Among the first suggested additions to Engler’s list came from Rep. Bill Kidd, an Independence Republican, who responded almost immediately, “Intern dress code.”

He was seconded by Republican Rep. Nick King of Liberty.

“We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” King wrote in an email to colleagues. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”

Rep. Kathy Swan, a Cape Girardeau Republican, said in an email that dress codes are common HR policies in the workplace.

“The most valuable and valid internship experiences are ones where interns are embedded in the work environment, which includes the same/similar job expectations as employees, including dress code,” Swan said.

But enthusiasm for the idea wasn’t shared by Democratic lawmakers.

“We’re really not going to require interns to dress so we’re less distracted, are we?” said Rep. Bill Otto, a St. Louis County Democrat. “All we need is a code of ethics and a penalty provision.”

Rep. Sue Meredith, a St. Louis Democrat, said she was getting the feeling “the finger is being pointed at the young, female interns.” The dress code, she said, should be “the same as for everyone in the House.”

A handbook given to all Missouri House interns this year says that lawmaking is “a professional activity, and those engaged in it must dress professionally and appropriately. Men are required to wear a jacket and necktie for admission to the side galleries of the House Chamber. Women should dress in appropriate business attire (such as dress, suit, dress slacks and jacket).”

Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said a dress code isn’t the problem.

“Harassing interns is” the problem, LaFaver said, later adding: “If my plaid jacket or the sight of a woman’s bare knee distracts you from your legislative duties, I would look for other work.”

In recent months, dozens of women — current and former interns, legislative aides, lobbyists and lawmakers — told The Star sexual harassment in the Capitol is commonplace. Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat, told her colleagues that “the sexual harassment that has been prevalent has nothing to do with what a female wears. This is not the 1950s. Harassment in the workplace is illegal and a woman’s attire does not give anyone the right to harass, regardless if they feel distracted.”

Newman suggested any proposed dress code be identical to one governing staff and legislators. Rep. Bill White, a Joplin Republican, agreed that “professional attire” should be a general standard.

Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat who sits on the panel that is drafting the new policy, said the primary responsibility for ethical conduct “lies first and foremost with members of the House.”

“We should never infer that the problem –– and therefore its remedies –– lies with the student interns,” he said.

Taylor Hirth and Alissa Hembree, the interns whose allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Paul LeVota forced him to resign, released a joint statement Tuesday afternoon expressing disappointment in some of the changes being proposed.

“Suggestions requiring certain GPAs, increased supervision and mandatory dress codes suggest that the interns are lacking in quality, knowledge, or character and are in some way to blame for the harassment they experience,” Hirth and Hembree said. “Additionally, it implies that those perpetuating this behavior are unable to control their own behaviors.”

McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has previously told of being harassed when she was an intern in Jefferson City decades ago. She has said that she is working to create an advocacy organization to help victims of sexual harassment in Missouri’s Capitol after the spate of scandals involving interns.

Engler shared a few of the proposals, such as establishing an ombudsman program, with The Star last week. He said that after his House colleagues have a chance to weigh in and share ideas he hopes to have a final draft that can be reviewed and released to the public by the veto session on Sept. 16.

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