The Buzz

Former interns speak out about proposed changes to Missouri House intern policy

Taylor Hirth and Alissa Hembree — the former legislative interns whose allegations of sexual harassment against state Sen. Paul LeVota drove him to resign — released a joint statement Tuesday afternoon in response to the Missouri House’s plans to reform its intern policy.

Hirth interned for LeVota while he was House minority leader in 2010. Hembree interned in his senate office this year. Both say the Democrat from Independence sexually harassed and retaliated against them.

He denies the allegations.

The pair decided to speak out after a draft was circulated of proposed guidelines for the Missouri House internship program. Several GOP lawmakers suggested another provision — an intern dress code — be added, an idea that has drawn scorn from Democrats.

Hirth and Hembree’s statement is below:

While we are encouraged to learn of measures being considered by members of the Missouri House to clean up the culture in Jefferson City, we are disheartened by 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. Additionally, it implies that those perpetuating this behavior are unable to control their own behaviors. Focusing on dress habits and reporting suggests that harassment is about something other than power and control. Unwanted, aggressive attentions from a person in power to a subordinate is about the aggressor’s ability to control that other person’s experience, not about an overtly sexually charged atmosphere. Additionally, while the focus lately has been on the experiences of interns, we want to acknowledge that there are others who have had similar experiences—staff, legislators, lobbyists and visitors— but have not felt safe speaking out until now.

We do not disagree that conversations around improving the intern program can, and should, take place. However, with policy discussions such as these, it's important to ask whether the predominantly male leadership is able to adequately address the needs of those who have been victims of sexual harassment. We believe the focus needs to be on challenging the norms that enable this problematic culture. Ethics reforms need to be enacted that stop perpetuating the fraternity mentality rampant in the halls of the Capitol. Reporting and subsequent investigations need to be handled by an independent party or organization having experience dealing with sexual harassment and/or sexual violence, and is able to provide adequate support for those victimized by inappropriate behaviors or worse. It’s time for the leadership of the Missouri General Assembly to stop blaming the victims and insist that their caucuses behave in the manner befitting the trust placed in them by their constituents. We won’t be silenced anymore.