For some Iowa lawmakers, sexual harassment training lacking

State House lawmakers required only to sign a policy statement

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By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Bes Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — As the fallout from sexual harassment allegations and a $1.75 million settlement continues at the Iowa Capitol, lawmakers are trying to determine the best path forward.

In the Iowa Senate, where a jury has ruled the harassment transpired, leaders are weighing whether to create a human resources director position to help handle future complaints.

The Iowa House already has made that decision and plans to hire a human resources director, though a timeline for that has not been set.

One area a new human resources director could examine is the House and Senate’s current policies on sexual harassment training. In some aspects, the chambers are lacking compared with other states.

Lawmakers are exploring their options in the wake of sexual harassment findings after Kirsten Anderson, a former Iowa Senate Republican caucus staff member, sued the state after she was fired in 2013.

Anderson said she was fired in retaliation for reporting a “toxic” environment of sexual harassment in the Capitol. Bill Dix of Shell Rock, the leader of the Senate GOP, does not dispute her assertions that she and others were sexually harassed, but maintains she was fired for poor work performance.

Anderson testified in front of a jury in July. One Senate Republican staff member who was cited by Anderson in court documents as the source of much of the harassment resigned in September. A few weeks later, a jury ruled in favor of Anderson, and the state settled the case without further appeals for $1.75 million.

The Senate actually has the stronger of the chambers’ sexual harassment training policies.

In the Senate, sexual harassment training is held every year during the first few weeks of the legislative session, and is required for all senators and staff every two-year general assembly.

In odd-numbered years (just after an election), all senators, full-time and part-time staff take the training. In even-numbered years, any new senators or staff take the training.

The training is a one-hour session conducted by staff from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

The Iowa House policy, on the other hand, requires no in-person sexual harassment training for legislators. They are required only to sign to declare they read a two-page document reviewing House policy against sexual harassment. Legislators must submit the signed statement to the House’s chief clerk every two-year general assembly.

Newly hired House clerks — assistants who work for the legislators — take part in a harassment prevention training class at the beginning of each session, and House pages — low-level aides who run errands for legislators and clerks — receive training from staff during orientation.

Starting in December, though, all legislators and staff also will be asked to review a slideshow provided by the state’s Department of Administrative Services. Each employee is supposed to print a certificate afterward and submit it a supervisor.

The House also plans to bolster its ability to respond to potential sexual harassment complaints by hiring a human resources director. The new director will investigate employee allegations and concerns and review policies and recommend changes.

The director also will perform typical human resources functions, such as writing job descriptions, assisting with the hiring and orientation of new employees and assisting with hiring and firing procedures.

“The House will continue with the hiring of a human resources professional to assist legislative employees. I believe that this is the right decision,” House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, a Republican from Clear Lake, said in a statement. “A human resources professional, dedicated to that role, will provide expertise and continuity in an increasingly complex field in order to provide the best working environment we can for our employees. The Iowa House will always look for opportunities to make improvements.”

Dix has come under criticism for postponing the decision to hire a human resources director for the Senate — he said he first wants to get more external input to determine the best policy — and for saying Senate Republicans will not publicly disclose the findings of their internal investigation. He said he’s not releasing the results out of respect for the privacy of those who were interviewed.

“From my perspective, I want to be completely open and transparent. We want to make sure that whatever we do, it has been done in the best possible way and the most accountable way,” Dix said last week.

Despite the stated desire to be transparent, though, he has not responded to an open records request from The Gazette for documentation of the investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen said Senate Republicans should publish them.

“Releasing the findings of your internal investigation would be a first step in making sure the Legislature is a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, protecting Iowa taxpayers, and protecting the rights of those who raise concerns about harassment,” Petersen wrote in a letter to Dix.

While Anderson’s lawsuit shook the Iowa Capitol, the entire country is experiencing a wave of allegations of sexual harassment and assaults after the New York Times broke the story that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein harassed or assaulted dozens of women. Others who have been accused in recent weeks include more in the movie and television industries, the news media and prominent politicians.

Iowa’s is far from the only statehouse impacted. In the past month, women in at least 16 states have accused male state lawmakers of sexual assault or harassment. Only five of those states — California, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon and Vermont — require all state lawmakers to attend regular anti-harassment training, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

At the federal level, Iowa’s senior Republican U.S. senator, Chuck Grassley, helped make sexual harassment training mandatory on Capitol Hill.

Grassley pressed leaders on the Senate Rules Committee to make the training required for all offices, and joined roughly 20 senators in supporting a resolution that does just that. The resolution requires all lawmakers and staff complete the training within 60 days of starting work in the Senate and re-complete the training every two years.

“Comprehensive mandatory anti-harassment training will now be a critical component of how we show our employees they are valued, respected, and protected,” Grassley said in a statement.

Many individual U.S. Senate offices already require sexual harassment training for their staffs, but there has been no policy in the chamber to require it.

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