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Editorial: Act quickly on harassment

Kansas lawmakers would be wise to follow through on the recommendations from the Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation for updating sexual harassment policies for the Legislature.

Shortly after sexual harassment allegations involving state legislators surfaced in October, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, sought the input of the Women’s Foundation.

“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,” Women’s Foundation President and CEO Wendy Doyle said in announcing the release of its resulting report.

Doyle said the review was long overdue considering the Legislature’s current policies on sexual harassment have not been updated in more than 20 years.

The Foundation’s two-page report includes 26 specific recommendations for the Legislature to adopt. The report is organized into four categories: ethics and workplace culture; accountability and monitoring; education and awareness; and victim resources.

Examples of the recommendations include:

  • Require elected officials, legislative staff, interns and lobbyists to participate in annual training on civil discourse, cultural competence and sexual harassment.
  • Create a nonfraternization policy for interns, legislative staff, elected officials and lobbyists.
  • Ban gift-giving to interns.
  • Provide for an independent, outside legal counsel to conduct sexual harassment investigations.
  • Prohibit secret settlements in sexual harassment cases.

Wagle, who has served in the Legislature since 1991, said while the culture regarding sexual harassment has improved during her tenure in Topeka, more could be done.

“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.”

The recommendations from the Women’s Foundation can be enacted administratively through the Legislative Coordinating Council, a group made up of the top Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers. The council has received the report, but has yet to take formal action.

Kansas, of course, is not the only state dealing with allegations of sexual harassment by lawmakers. In Missouri, reports of interns being sexually harassed ultimately led to the resignation of two lawmakers, including the speaker of the House. In response, Missouri worked with the Women’s Foundation to develop and implement changes to its sexual harassment policies.

Sexual harassment policy changes are overdue in Kansas and lawmakers shouldn’t wait to take action until the next scandal emerges. Rather, legislators should move quickly to adopt and implement many of the Women’s Foundation’s policy recommendations. Doing so will make the Capitol a better and safer place to work.

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