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Women's Foundation urges Kansas lawmakers to update and strengthen sexual harassment policies

Wendy Doyle, left, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation based in Kansas City, Mo., and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, announce a list of recommendations to address and prevent sexual harassment in the Kansas Statehouse, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017.

— The Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation is urging Kansas lawmakers to update their policies on sexual harassment following allegations earlier this year of widespread harassment against female interns and staff at the Statehouse.

The two-page report, which was published online Friday morning, recommends such measures as enacting a nonfraternization policy for interns, legislative staff, elected officials and lobbyists; banning gift-giving to interns; and increasing the number of women in leadership roles, which, according to the foundation, has been shown through research to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment.

“Every instance of sexual harassment, especially when it is perpetrated by elected officials entrusted with political leadership, is a setback for gender equity and opportunity,” Women’s Foundation President and CEO Wendy Doyle said in a news release. “Our review found that the Kansas Legislature lacks the policies, procedures and coordinated approach necessary to prevent sexual harassment from happening, and to respond effectively when it does.”

Allegations of sexual harassment in the Kansas Statehouse came amid a flurry of national reports about harassment and misconduct by high-ranking people in the entertainment industry, politics, business and the news media.

“This is not a partisan issue and it is not unique to Kansas,” Doyle said at a news conference releasing the report. “Sexual harassment is a widespread epidemic, especially in male-dominated workplaces, and it’s urgent that we solve it.”

Soon after the allegations of harassment in the Statehouse surfaced, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, contacted the Women’s Foundation in October, asking it for advice after Abbie Hodgson, a former staffer in the House Democratic leader’s office, was quoted in The Hill as saying she had suffered sexual harassment on a routine basis and that college-age female interns were often called upon to serve as designated drivers after hours to drive inebriated lawmakers home.

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Wendy Doyle, left, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation based in Kansas City, Mo., ...

“Sexual harassment cannot be tolerated in our communities, not in our workplaces, and especially not here in the Kansas Capitol,” Wagle said. “The people of Kansas deserve elected officials who are held to the very highest standards of conduct. That’s why, after deeply troubling reports of sexual harassment and misconduct, I was committed to taking action.”

Currently in the Senate, six of the 10 leadership positions are held by women, including Wagle, who holds the top leadership spot. In the House, though, only two out of 12 leadership positions are held by women. One of those is Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, who is the House minority caucus chair.

Of the 165 members of the Legislature, 120, or about 73 percent, are male.

Responding to questions from reporters, Wagle said the most important recommendation that she wants to see enacted immediately is mandating sexual harassment training.

“I do believe that education is one of the first things that we can do,” she said.

Wagle said the recommendations can be enacted administratively through the Legislative Coordinating Council, a group made up of the top Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers, That group met later in the day Friday and received the report but did not take any formal action.

Doyle said the Legislature’s current policies on sexual harassment have not been updated in 23 years and that an overhaul is long overdue.

The recommendations were in four categories: ethics and workplace culture; accountability and monitoring; education and awareness; and victim resources. Among the other recommendations in the report are hiring independent, outside legal counsel to conduct sexual harassment investigations; banning secret settlements that include nondisclosure agreements; updating the Legislature’s intern policies and procedures, including the procedures and requirements for intern placement; and allowing victims to report their experiences anonymously and mandating prompt investigations.

Allowing anonymous complaints, however, could be controversial because that raises issues about due process, especially if people are going to face sanctions without being allowed to know who their accuser is.

“We probably need some time to respond appropriately on how the mechanics of that would work,” Doyle said.

Wagle said she has witnessed sexual harassment in the Statehouse many times in her 26 years serving in the Legislature.

“When I first started in the House (in 1991), we allowed liquor on the floor, we allowed smoking on the floor, and we didn’t have ethics rules,” Wagle said. “So it was a very, very, very different environment, and it was a male-dominated environment. And so I would say yes, harassment was more prevalent. But most of the women who run for office, they can hold their own.”

Since the recent allegations have surfaced, she said, she has had numerous conversations with Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and she said they are all in agreement on how to handle sexual harassment complaints.

“We will not tolerate harassment. We all treat it the same,” she said.

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