Kansas legislators get sexual harassment training amid controversy over conduct

Amid a wave of controversy over Statehouse conduct, about 80 members of the Kansas House got training on avoiding, recognizing and preventing sexual harassment and assault.

 

The training was one of many recommendations the Women’s Foundation made late last year after former statehouse and campaign staffers complained of widespread abuse in Kansas politics. Staffers complained legislative and party officials did little to respond to allegations of harassment and misconduct.

House Democrats held a separate training session before the legislative session started last week. Between the two, most House members have now attended a training. Heather Scanlon, a spokeswoman for the House Democratic Leader Jim Ward said three Democrats had not attended either training session. At least 15 Republicans didn’t attend Wednesday’s training, but a Thursday training session is scheduled for senators.

“I’m disappointed more members weren’t here,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.

The training session was optional, but Hineman said members who didn’t attend could face repercussions from fellow members or their constituents. He said it was important members attend because sexual harassment has “bubbled up into a full-blown crisis” in American society.

Legislators’ training session consisted of a series of video clips and a presentation by Michelle McCormick, a program director at the YWCA and Steven Halley, director of the Family Peace Initiative. The organization also provided the House Democrats’ training and sessions for legislative interns and staff members. McCormick said training sessions should be mandatory, but legislators have said it can’t be made compulsory under current statute because representatives are elected officials, not employees.

“I think that a lot of employers make this a regular part of their training and their orientation of staff,” McCormick said. “I know when I worked at the attorney general’s office, we had it yearly, and so I don’t know why other state agencies wouldn’t do that.”

McCormick and Halley focused on defining, recognizing and preventing sexual harassment and emphasized the power dynamics in politics that can make sexual harassment prevalent.

Halley said those with power, like a boss or employer, can wield power over subordinates, making it hard for those without power to say no to inappropriate requests. He said an unnamed lobbyist in New Mexico was asked for a distasteful “favor” by a legislator in exchange for a vote on bill.

“Those are the least-bad binds that people who are not in power face frequently,” Halley said. “And so it becomes on us as an employer, as a representative, as a baby-sitter, as a pastor or a priest, a powerful position — it becomes incumbent on us to be keenly aware of how our power can influence people and we can use it in a negative way, a cruel way or we could use it to really change the world.”

Hineman said he agreed power dynamics in workplaces created an “amplified possibility” for harassment.

Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Olathe Democrat, said she thought the session shed light for some legislators on what constitutes harassment.

“I believe there were likely some people who had this idea in their mind of only certain activities are sexual harassment, but I think that’s been broadened out,” Holscher said. “It’s great that conversation has been started, and this is a great first step in that regard.”

Holscher, a first-term representative, said she was surprised harassment prevention training wasn’t mandatory, but she was pleased with the turnout and thought legislators understood the importance.

Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican, said he was pleased the training included information on how third-parties can intervene and help in instances of sexual harassment.

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