TOPEKA, Kan. — Dozens of Kansas lawmaker’s received an hour of sexual harassment training Wednesday designed to get them to speak up if they know about misconduct after an outside group said the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy was outdated and weak.
Several lawmakers left the session for Kansas House members saying it was only a first step toward combatting problems at the Statehouse, and one Republican legislator saying she thought the training was too shallow.
The Legislature’s anti-harassment policy hasn’t been updated since 1994, and it requires no training for lawmakers or their staff. The Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City, Missouri group that promotes gender equity, included mandatory annual training among more than two dozen recommendations for strengthening the policy last month.
Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature concluded that they couldn’t legally require the training for independently elected lawmakers. About 80 of the House’s 125 members attended Wednesday’s session, and two dozen participated in a separate session for House Democrats in December.
“The hope was to sort of take the blinders off a little and let folks know how really significant this is,” said Michelle McCormick, director of the Center for Safety and Empowerment at the YWCA Northeast Kansas in Topeka, one of two presenters.
Top lawmakers initiated a review of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy review after the ex-chief of staff for a former Democratic leader said publicly in October that a lawmaker once asked her for sex in 2015. She described harassment as “rampant” and said female college-student interns regularly served as after-hour designated drivers for intoxicated lawmakers in 2016.
Legislative staffers and interns had a similar training session last week, and the Senate planned to have one for its 40 members Thursday.
After Wednesday’s session, more than 60 of the House’s 85 Republicans had received training, along with all but a few of the House’s 40 Democrats.
But freshman Republican Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita attorney, expressed disappointment with the training, saying it wasn’t deep enough and didn’t do enough to differentiate between harassment and sexual abuse.
“A comment is not the same as a woman who is faced with either getting beaten up or having sex,” Humphries said. “When you throw them in the same category, it’s offensive to the women who have truly been abused.”
During the training, co-presenter Steven Halley, a clinical social worker and director of the Family Peace Initiative in Topeka, described sexual harassment as an abuse of power and “the intentional infliction of pain and suffering.”
McCormick told the lawmakers: “Steve and I are really framing the issue today in, maybe, a different way than you’ve heard it before, because we believe that sexual harassment is on the continuum of sexual violence.”
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