Editorial: Fighting harassment

Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward’s call for independent investigators to look into sexual harassment claims against members of the Legislature merits consideration, given the heightened concern about sexual harassment, particularly among men in positions of power.

Ward made the recommendation last week, after Abbie Hodgson, who was chief of staff for former House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs from December 2014 through July 2016, alleged that she and other young women were sexually harassed by legislators. Hodgson said a Democratic lawmaker once asked her for sex and that college-age female interns regularly served as designated drivers for intoxicated lawmakers outside of normal intern hours. Hodgson said after she complained about being propositioned, Burroughs told the lawmaker to knock it off but the lawmaker faced no other consequences. Burroughs disputes Hodgson’s version, saying action was taken.

Policies now call for staff complaints of sexual harassment by lawmakers to be investigated by the legislative services office. The office’s director is hired by legislative leaders. Ward proposes that legislative leaders instead hire an independent compliance officer when a complaint is lodged to investigate and recommend punishment if necessary.

“I think sexual harassment is a widespread problem in communities, in workplaces across the country,” Ward said. “That includes the Statehouse.”

Fellow lawmakers didn’t immediately warm to Ward’s idea. House Majority Leader Don Hineman said he trusts the state’s legislative services office to handle such investigations, and Senate President Susan Wagle said Ward’s proposal would create another level of bureaucracy that isn’t needed.

But Ward’s approach shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Several state legislatures have been rocked by sexual harassment scandals, including Missouri, where reports of interns being sexually harassed ultimately led to the resignation of two lawmakers, including the speaker of the House. In response, Missouri worked with the Women’s Foundation to develop and implement changes to its sexual harassment policies, including increased training and a new website aimed at helping legislative interns identify and respond to sexual harassment.

The revelation of dozens of sexual harassment claims against Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein has unleashed a torrent of claims against businessmen, politicians, actors, journalists and others in positions of power. It has spurred thousands, mostly women, to share stories of being harassed on social media using #metoo.

Sexual harassment has persisted as a pervasive stain on so many institutions in part because, in the past, victims have largely chosen silence. But such silence appears to be coming to an end and rightfully so.

That shift is placing a spotlight on all organizations, but particularly institutions of power like state legislatures. State employees should feel comfortable working in an environment free of sexual harassment and if they are ever a victim of what they believe to be such harassment, that it will be investigated and dealt with appropriately. Ward’s proposal addresses that concern and should be considered seriously by lawmakers.