Government & Politics

Training? Policy? Kansas Legislature’s efforts against sexual harassment ‘inadequate’

The sexual harassment policy of the Kansas Legislature lacks elements found in the policies of some other state legislatures.
The sexual harassment policy of the Kansas Legislature lacks elements found in the policies of some other state legislatures. The Topeka Capital Journal via AP

In the Kansas Legislature, no policy stops lawmakers from pursuing romantic relationships with interns. Nothing in the sexual harassment policy says an outside investigator can look into complaints. And lawmakers who engage in harassment are not identified in public reports.

The state’s 23-year-old sexual harassment policy lacks provisions found in the policies of other state legislatures and is under scrutiny.

“It’s an inadequate, in my view, policy for a number of reasons,” said Merrick Rossein, a national expert on sexual harassment policy and professor at the City University of New York.

Several women have shared stories of sexual harassment in the statehouse or within Kansas politics over the past few weeks. Their stories, part of a wave of allegations nationwide, led legislative leaders to ask the Women’s Foundation to review the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, unchanged since 1994. The organization could make recommendations as soon as December.

A look at policies in other states shows provisions that could encourage reporting of harassment and lead to stronger investigations.

Beyond provisions of the policy, some lawmakers said the policy itself needs to be more visible — and accompanied by training.

Some lawmakers said they were not aware the Legislature had a policy, or they couldn’t recall ever being told about it during years in office.

New lawmakers are informed of the Legislature’s zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment during orientation, a state official has said. But lawmakers are not required to receive regular training.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who has been in the Legislature since 2010, said she had no knowledge of the policy.

“I received no training, no nothing,” she said.

Kansas policy lacking

Kansas’s 500-word policy calls for complaints to be investigated and handled “as discreetly as possible” and says “prompt and effective corrective action” shall be taken. But it does not define potential action. It notes employees found in violation are subject to discipline, including termination.

Some states have policies that go further.

Like Kansas, the Tennessee General Assembly doesn’t define corrective action, but if harassment is found to have occurred, a report is issued to the House speaker. The report does not include the names of victims or witnesses and “shall be subject to public disclosure.” The Kansas policy does not provide for public disclosure and doesn’t require a written report.

Barbara Bryant, an expert in sexual harassment law at the University of California-Berkeley, suggested policies may want to include escalating consequences for harassers. A first-time offense might be resolved privately, she said.

“The second time, it’s really got to escalate. And part of that is probably making the names public. I know that’s going to be a hard sell,” Bryant said. “The third would be termination.”

Rossein said it is important for constituents to know if their lawmaker has engaged in harassment and that making reports public also sends the message that the Legislature takes harassment seriously.

The Kansas policy prohibits retaliation against people who report sexual harassment in good faith. But Rossein said the policy is minimal, with “no meat behind it.” Rossein helped develop the New York State Assembly’s harassment policy. Under it, a written statement defining retaliation can be sent to the person accused of harassment.

The Colorado Legislature’s policy allows for people or entities outside the Legislature to investigate complaints and make recommendations. New York also provides for an outside investigator.

Kansas policy allows for complaints to be investigated by the person who received the complaint or by their designee, but doesn’t define who can be designated to investigate.

“You have to have an independent process. There’s no way that people — constitutionally elected state officials, state senators, state representatives — they can’t investigate themselves,” Rossein said.

Joseph Mastrosimone, a law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, called the Kansas policy fairly standard.

“The question becomes: How is it used, how is it enforced? On paper, it’s what a lawyer would want in a sexual harassment policy,” Mastrosimone said. “The proof really is in the pudding.”

‘Environment is much better’

The Kansas policy does not ban lawmakers from engaging in romantic relationships with interns. The Missouri General Assembly banned such relationships after The Kansas City Star reported in 2015 that the House speaker at the time had exchanged sexually charged text messages with an intern. New York also bans fraternization between lawmakers and interns.

Abbie Hodgson, a former legislative staff member, said last month that she learned from an intern in 2016 that numerous Democratic lawmakers had relied on college interns for rides home after lobbyist-hosted cocktail parties and dinners. There have been no suggestions that any lawmakers were romantically involved with interns.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has asked the Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City-based organization, to review the state’s policy.

She called using interns for social events in the evening hours “clearly inappropriate.” Yet she also contended that progress has been made in her more than 25 years in the Legislature.

“On harassment, I really think the environment is much better than when I first started in the early ’90s. I think the environment’s improved, as have most work places,” Wagle said.

Wagle said it is time to revisit the Legislature’s harassment policy but that she isn’t necessarily saying it needs to be changed.

Wendy Doyle, the president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation, said zero tolerance for any sexual harassment in the state capitol is the first big step.

“I can’t comment on that,” Doyle said last week when asked whether she saw any immediate problems in Kansas. “But I do think that, again, the first step is to review the policies and we look forward to doing that and working alongside leadership to make sure that they’re safe for women and men of all ages.”

Some lawmakers don’t recall training

Although the policy has been in place for decades, it has apparently received little attention within the Legislature, prompting some lawmakers to call for regular harassment training.

Some lawmakers said they were not aware of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy or couldn’t recall receiving training.

Hodgson previously said Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat, was one of the few lawmakers supportive of her efforts to address concerns about interns giving rides to lawmakers. But even Trimmer said he wasn’t sure the Legislature had a sexual harassment policy.

“I’ve never been aware of one, other than we trust legislators to know the right thing to do. And so I think it’s good we’re going to have some training,” Trimmer said.

He referred to an announcement by House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, that House Democrats will receive sexual harassment training before the session begins in January.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said earlier this week he is open to ongoing training.

“I’d like to see the research on it,” Ryckman said. “My first blush with it is it’d be a good idea, but I’m open to listening to the experts and taking their advice.”

Ryckman said legislative researchers are looking for best practices in other states and then reporting back to get an idea of what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Rossein, who has conducted harassment training, said legislatures need robust training programs. He criticized online training as ineffective.

“The person may learn the terms, but they can’t really listen to each other,” Rossein said.

Good training involves small groups where people can have discussions about issues surrounding harassment, he said.

Bollier called for “very specific training.” She added that these are things that should be reviewed every year, and it should be required.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said now’s the time to revisit expectations, policies and what changes need to be made.

“Lawmakers, when they are there in Topeka, they’re employees of the state as well,” she said. “I feel there is benefit that you have that mandatory training from top down.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw