Editorial: More work needed on Texas Capitol’s harassment policies

A single, sobering fact accompanied the allegations that surfaced late last year about several Texas lawmakers groping, forcibly kissing and propositioning women who worked at the Capitol.

No one ever filed a formal complaint.

Rather, the alarming accusations came to light through investigative reporting by the Daily Beast and the Texas Tribune, amid the national conversation over sexual harassment sparked by the #MeToo movement. Women at the Capitol — staffers, lobbyists and even some journalists — have quietly warned each other for years about the men to avoid at the statehouse. But in the absence of strong policies that would truly hold offenders accountable, the women didn’t dare go public. (Indeed, most spoke to the Tribune and the Daily Beast on the condition their names not be used.)

The House and Senate took different paths toward a long overdue overhaul of their sexual harassment policies. Now, both chambers are reaching important stages that will determine whether their efforts will simply update the pages of a policy manual or bring meaningful cultural change to the Capitol.

BACK STORY: Abbott calls for improved sexual harassment guidelines at the Capitol

As members of the House and Senate examine their new policies in the coming weeks, we urge both chambers to designate an independent investigator to handle complaints involving lawmakers; require in-person training on how to prevent and report workplace misconduct; and create a fully transparent, accessible process that is deserving of the public’s trust.

The under-reporting of workplace harassment is a national phenomenon, but certain conditions make the Texas Legislature particularly vulnerable to abuse. Men hold nearly 80 percent of the legislative seats, and they don’t answer to a supervisor in the same way most workers do. Lawmakers have a significant power advantage over staffers and interns who are often younger, and the long hours during the session often overlap with socialization over drinks.

The House Administration Committee revamped its sexual harassment policy quickly, if imperfectly, in December, with the promise of more revisions to come. We applaud many of the new elements, including the detailed language explaining what constitutes sexual harassment, the establishment of several avenues for complaints and the availability of confidential counseling for victims.

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We also applaud House Speaker Joe Straus’ announcement Wednesday establishing a working group to examine additional changes that may be needed in House policy or Texas law. Several House members we recently spoke with agreed the December policy is still too vague on who will conduct investigations into complaints, and it retains the possibility that lawmakers will be in charge of investigating their colleagues, a cozy arrangement that would deter victims from coming forward. The policy mentions an “outside attorney or investigator” as an option. Our view is that an outside investigator or independent agency is the only outlet that will give victims the confidence their complaints will be handled impartially.

The House policy from December also requires all members, employees and interns to complete an anti-harassment training program every two years. However, the online tutorial developed by House staff, while effective in reaching the broadest audience quickly, lacks the depth and nuance of in-person training programs that are widely recognized as best practice. The program should include an element of bystander training, which provides the tools and sets the expectations for witnesses to intervene when they see untoward behavior — an essential piece of improving the overall culture.

Finally, the revised House policy must live beyond a manual stored on the Capitol’s internal computer network, the only place it’s currently available. It needs to be easily accessible to the public, including nonstate employees such as lobbyists, advocates and journalists whose work at the Capitol can also make them targets of harassment. The policy must be available to protect them, too.

In contrast to the quick action in the House, the Senate embarked on a slower, more deliberative policy review that recently drew criticism from the Texas Observer for not yet producing any changes. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who spoke in depth with us this week about the review effort she’s spearheading, said she expects to post a new policy in the coming week.

BACK STORY: Senate panel begins discussion about sexual harassment policy

Kolkhorst, who chairs the Senate Committee on Administration, has done the work of a one-woman committee — meeting with senators or staffers from each district, reviewing policies of other states and agencies, coordinating with lawyers on policy drafts. Without the urgency of the Legislature being in session this year, Kolkhorst said, “I wanted to make sure (the process) was thorough, that everyone’s voices were heard.”

We appreciate her dedication to the task, and we hope her work will set the stage for a full committee hearing where the public and other experts may engage, offering insights to strengthen the policy Kolkhorst has drafted and pursue legislation as needed.

Kolkhorst was not ready to share specifics on the policy with us, but we are encouraged by her promise of “rigorous training” and an overall shift that she said will “send a strong message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the Texas Senate.” The best way to accomplish that, in our view, is to follow the recommendations we’ve outlined for the House.

Ultimately, both chambers should strive for a consistency in policy and culture that protects everyone who has business before the Capitol.

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