SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When Assembly lawmakers met in November to discuss ways of improving their policies for preventing and responding to sexual harassment, Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley had an idea: Ban cellphones from the two-hour harassment training lawmakers must attend.
It seemed a trivial suggestion for addressing such a serious problem. But interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press reveal there’s truth in what his comment hinted at — many lawmakers aren’t deeply engaged with the trainings aimed at preventing the type of inappropriate behavior that forced two lawmakers to resign in the last month.
“Some people do take it seriously — and some people are on their phones, some people are cracking jokes,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens and chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. “I would say the large majority of people are not as attentive.”
The California Legislature has been soul-searching over how it handles sexual harassment since nearly 150 women signed a letter in mid-October saying such behavior is pervasive at the Capitol but women don’t report it because they fear retaliation. Two Democratic Assemblymen from Los Angeles, Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, chose to resign after allegations from multiple women went public. Both deny wrongdoing. Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia, meanwhile, has refused calls to step aside while the Senate investigates claims he acted inappropriately toward three of his female subordinates.
California law requires lawmakers and legislative staff attend sexual harassment training every two years, just as private-sector employees in supervisory roles do. For lawmakers, the training is run by outside lawyers with expertise in employment law. Across the nation, policies on sexual harassment and training requirements vary. The Texas House, for example, is requiring sexual harassment training for the first time in January, while Colorado is considering holding its existing training once a year instead of every other.
The California training is well-intended, lawmakers said, but poorly designed to fit the Legislature’s needs. While it offers hypothetical but realistic scenarios, such as a boss asking out a subordinate, it doesn’t drill down enough on the unique power dynamics in the Capitol among lawmakers, lobbyists and staff members that women say make it difficult for them to avoid or report harassment.
“I do think we can do a much better job,” Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said. “That just protects everyone to have better training.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Roth, a long-time employment lawyer from Riverside who has taught harassment trainings, described the trainings as “check-the-box” sessions that go through the basics but little more. He suggested they focus more on what happens if a complaint is filed against a lawmaker and what protections are available to the accuser and the accused.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, offered a more blunt assessment, saying they can feel like a lecture for fourth-graders.
“I think people go in there hoping to learn something new, they are interested initially but once you start going through the training I think it’s lacking in material that holds people’s interest,” she said.
Attendance is mandatory, but records obtained by the AP through public records requests show there is wiggle room.
In the Senate, attendance records indicate some lawmakers miss the training each year and it’s unclear if they’re forced to make it up later. This year, three Republicans missed the Senate’s February training. Two of them, Sens. Andy Vidak of Hanford and Jim Nielsen of Gerber, made up the training last month, after the sexual harassment scandal at the Capitol emerged. Sen. Tom Berryhill of Twain Harte still hasn’t.
In 2015, attendance records show at least three senators didn’t sign in for training. In 2013, seven lawmakers didn’t sign in. The Senate did not provide any records showing those senators attended makeup sessions, though Senate Secretary Danny Alvarez said anyone who misses must attend them.
In the Assembly, records show full attendance in the past three sessions, with some lawmakers attending a makeup day. In 2017, nearly a third of members showed up late to the February training, some by more than 20 minutes. The training is scheduled for two hours and 15 minutes to account for late arrivals, and anyone who shows up significantly late must come back on a different day, said Debra Gravert, the chamber’s chief administrative officer.
“No matter what, we make sure all Assembly members receive all the information presented and at least 2 hours of training,” she said in an email.
The trainings are held in a lecture-style room, with lawmakers listening to presenters at the front. The attorneys run through slideshows filled with information and hypothetical situations. A training given to senators this year has one slide titled “Some excuses that don’t work,” including phrases such as “I didn’t mean to offend her” or “I was only kidding.”
Another series of slides reads “Why don’t most employees complain?” and provides answers such as “fear it will be held against them” and “do not know how to report the matter.”
Laurie Damrell, an outside attorney who helps run the Assembly trainings, told the Assembly panel last month she thought the trainings could be more effective if they were given in smaller groups, rather than to half the chamber’s 80 members at a time. Still, she said the trainings attempt to make clear there can be serious consequences for lawmakers or others who engage in harassment.
“We make an effort to scare people,” she said.