Under updated policy, Kansas Legislature sexual harassment complaints still handled internally, ‘as discreetly as possible’

Kansas House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, right, R-Olathe, asks a question of House Minority Leader Jim Ward, left, D-Wichita, during a discussion among top lawmakers about the Legislature's sexual harassment policy, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

? Top leaders updated the Kansas Legislature’s policy against sexual harassment on Friday without requiring an outside review of complaints or altering their longstanding approach of having them handled as privately as possible.

The revised policy approved by the top seven legislative leaders is more specific about how allegations of misconduct will be handled, particularly from legislative interns. It specifically says lawmakers identified in “well-founded” complaints could face formal — and public — discipline in the House and Senate, such as censure.

But the revised policy stops short of mandating annual sexual harassment training for legislators and their staff, and complaints still will be handled by legislative leaders or the Legislature’s director of administrative services. It still says complaints will be “handled as discreetly as possible.”

Leaders from both parties said they will keep working with the Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City, Missouri-based nonprofit that promotes gender equity and that further updates are possible. They said they wanted to make some improvements quickly; the previous policy had not been updated since 1994.

“It’s not the final product, but this a step in the right direction,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

Legislative leaders initiated their review of the policy after the ex-chief of staff for a former Democratic legislative leader said publicly in October that an unnamed lawmaker once asked her for sex in 2015 and described harassment as “rampant.” She said female college interns regularly served as after-hours designated drivers for intoxicated lawmakers in 2016.

Her statements came amid a national wave of misconduct allegations against prominent figures in multiple industries. Legislators in at least nine other states have been forced to step down during the past seven months.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer issued an executive order Monday mandating annual sexual harassment training for roughly 20,000 executive branch employees under his control. He sent a letter Friday to the state’s elected attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and insurance commissioner, urging them to adopt similar policies.

But Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said the Legislature’s new policy is not strong enough, partly because it lacks an outside review of complaints.

“We need independent folks that are trained in this area,” Ward said.

Other legislative leaders said setting up an independent review — and figuring out how to pay for it — will take time.

Also, legislative leaders view their director of administrative services as nonpartisan and independent, even though they hire him. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said in the past, the director has acted as a “disciplinarian” to enforce leaders’ administrative policies.

The Legislature’s new policy requires sexual harassment training for legislative employees at least once every two years. Top lawmakers have said they can’t mandate training for legislators because they are elected, but the policy calls for it to be made available. The old policy did not require training.

“It’s far better than what we’ve had,” Hensley said.