Alabama’s House of Representatives members will be getting mandatory sexual harassment training beginning in 2019, even though House and Senate officials say neither body has had a sexual harassment complaint filed in decades or longer.
The House also posts detailed sexual harassment policies online for open viewing.
These moves put Alabama lawmakers and staff in solid company. The majority of the nation’s legislative chambers are intensifying efforts to prevent sexual harassment after a wave of sexual harassment claims made against prominent figures gained momentum in the fall, the Associated Press found in a 50-state review released Thursday.
AP found that more than three-fourths of the states have at least one legislative chamber that has updated its sexual harassment policy during the past several months, developed specific proposals to do so or undertaken a review of whether changes are needed.
While the Alabama House is adding mandatory training for its 105 members beginning next year, no changes are planned for the 35 senators, who are not required to take training courses.
Staff in both chambers do receive regular full classroom sexual harassment training, according to legislative officials. Pat Harris, secretary of the Senate, also said the policy and procedures to report complaints are discussed regularly with staff.
“My philosophy is we are professional adults here,” Harris said.
“We’ve never had a complaint in my 37 years,” Harris said, and he’s found no records of complaints during the tenure of his two predecessors, which stretch back more than 100 years. While he brings up the subject at every staff meeting, Harris said he believes mandatory training for senators is not necessary because of past performance.
The state Personnel Department has a long-standing training program on sexual harassment that is offered to legislative staff.
“They know that, no matter if it’s a member, a lobbyist or employee, they should go to their supervisor or me with any problem or perceived problem, privately without any repercussions,” Harris said.
House Takes Precautions
The House posts its sexual harassment policy online “for the public to see,” said Clay Redden, public information officer for the House.
“As we stand right now, and in my 14 years in this position, there have been no sexual harassment complaints,” Redden said. House staff receive sexual harassment and general anti-discrimination training on a regular basis, as new employees and as refreshers, he said.
The House speaker’s chief of staff, Jim Entrekin, said House leadership has decided, “given the events that have taken place nationally,” to include sexual harassment training in the mandatory orientation sessions for members beginning in 2019.
In the meantime, during the first meeting of the current 2018 legislative session, the House Republican Caucus distributed copies of the House sexual harassment policy to its members and had an attorney provide an overview of its contents, Entrekin said.
“We have strongly urged the House Democrat Caucus to provide the same information and training to its members,” he said.
The posted House sexual harassment policy goes into detail about what constitutes sexual harassment, including behavior that is not welcome, personally offensive, not respectful and morale-lowering, and so interferes with work effectiveness.
The House policy defines verbal harassment as including sexual innuendoes, suggestive comments, jokes of a sexual nature and demeaning references such as babe, girl, chick or honey.
State employees receive sexual harassment training on schedules set by each state agency, said Tara Hetzel, general counsel for the Alabama Personnel Board. Attorneys – either Hetzel or Laury Morgan, who is deputy general counsel – teach the 2½ hour classroom training, which includes a written manual, a PowerPoint presentation and a scenario video that class members complete and discuss. The in-person training with real-life scenarios was cited by an expert in the AP story as “a better approach” for training staff and lawmakers, as opposed to relying solely on online and video.
The training is held at the personnel offices, or the trainers can go to the agency headquarters. For large agencies with multiple offices, the training group offers video conferencing of the full classroom training so employees across the state can participate at the same time.
“We’ve been doing this training for years,” Hetzel said. However, in light of the national sexual harassment and abuse discussion, she sees state agencies “being more aware and being more proactive in making sure the training happens.”
One example is the state’s Legislative Services Agency, a new organization created Oct. 1 that brought together offices that had supported both the state Senate and House with legal, fiscal and code and reference services.
LSA employees completed mandatory sexual harassment training this month. LSA Director Othni Lathram said the new agency was already creating uniform policies and doing uniform training, but “the importance of preventing sexual harassment as highlighted by recent national stories certainly came into play in ensuring that this topic was given priority.”