Legislative leaders look to update sex harassment policies
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The leaders of the state’s House and Senate said they’re considering potentially significant changes to the process used to investigate allegations of sexual harassment in the Statehouse.
The comments by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, both Democrats, come in the midst of a national focus on workplace harassment issues.
Johnson said she had received the Legislative Council’s thorough review of where improvements could be made. For example, the five-member House Sexual Harassment Prevention Panel is made up exclusively of lawmakers, which could be intimidating to lobbyists or Statehouse staff looking to lodge a complaint.
“Maybe it’s not appropriate for the panel to be made up of all legislators, when sexual harassment is about a power differential, and there’s a tremendous power differential within the Statehouse,” Johnson said.
Ashe said members of the Senate have to do a better job collectively “of creating the right environment that people deserve to work in.”
Vermont Public Radio reported that an individual lodged an allegation of sexual misconduct against a sitting state senator during the last legislative session. The experience highlighted potential shortcomings in the Senate process for investigating complaints, said Ashe.
Under current Senate rules, the identities of both the alleged victim and perpetrator are confidential. Ashe said he did not know the identity of the accused senator, and the case was resolved without disciplinary action.
“One of the issues, I’ll just tell you that we are going to have to evaluate is whether the amount of information which currently our policies allow to be revealed is sufficient,” said Ashe.
Johnson said public scrutiny of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies is welcome.
Their goal is to “create a gold standard of sexual harassment prevention and training and reporting,” she said.