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Texas Leaders Call For Training On Sexual Harassment – But Can't Require It For Lawmakers

Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Top Texas lawmakers have called for reviews of sexual harassment policies at the state Capitol following reports detailing how current procedures offered little protection for victims. Proposed solutions have included better training aimed at preventing harassment and informing victims of their rights.

But legislative leaders will likely face a roadblock if they want to force lawmakers into any sort of anti-harassment training: They can’t require it of individual legislators, some of whom were behind the worst behavior recounted to the Tribune. A nearly 20-year-old law that orders training for all employees at other state entities — but not the Legislature — could offer a possible solution.

The complexities behind management at the Capitol means lawmakers are subject to the rules of each chamber but, as elected officials, are largely in control of their own offices.

"There is going to be mandatory training — for everybody," state Rep. Charlie Geren said Thursday of the policy the House is developing. The Fort Worth Republican chairs the House Administration Committee, where sexual harassment complaints are supposed to go under the House’s current policy. “I may not be able to make them do it, but we are going to tell them it’s mandatory."

House Speaker Joe Straus acknowledged this limitation Tuesday in his call for the training program.

Through a spokesman’s statement, Straus said he would make the training mandatory for his staff and those employed directly by the chamber, including recordkeepers and payroll personnel. But that mandate fell short of House members. Instead, the statement said Straus would “strongly encourage” them to attend and “ensure” that their staff do as well.

In the Senate, sexual harassment training has been in place for some employees for at least a decade. Patsy Spaw, secretary of the chamber, implemented the program after she took the job in 2001, but she said it only requires staffers employed directly by the Senate to attend, not individual member offices.

“There’s not any policy that requires [training], it’s just me insisting that we do it,” Spaw said.

She noted she’s had “absolute support” from the three lieutenant governors she’s served under who also have required their staffs to attend the training. Some senators require their employees to attend, but senators themselves never do, she said.

In 1999, legislators wrote a law requiring state agencies — including the executive branch, state courts and higher education institutions — to provide employment anti-discrimination training, which covers sexual harassment, for all of their employees every two years.

But they did not require any training for themselves and their own offices.

It’s unclear whether Straus or Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, would endorse a change to state statute to add the legislative branch to the list of state entities required to provide training for all employees, including lawmakers. Spokesmen for both legislative leaders did not respond to questions on that topic.

Both asked for reviews of their respective chamber's sexual harassment policies a day after the Tribune detailed flaws in the policies that leave victims to fend for themselves. The Daily Beast had earlier detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Greg Abbott said on Thursday that the governor's office had, at the request of the House and Senate, shared its "agency policy provisions regarding Equal Employment Opportunity training and our complaint process." 

Lawmakers in both chambers this week have spoken out in support of mandated training for everyone, including themselves.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, previously pointed to a recent measure passed in the U.S. Senate, requiring mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators and their staff. Garcia indicated a tweaked version of that measure — to include both Capitol chambers, state officeholders and their staffs — could work for Texas.

State Rep. Tom Oliverson, a Cypress Republican who sits on the House Administration Committee, endorsed training for both Capitol staffers and legislators.

"Even if there was a point at which that kind of behavior was tolerated, we’re not at that point anymore,” Oliverson said. “This is the 21st century, and I think we all need to grow up, act like adults and treat each other with respect."

Despite that support, any revisions or policies put into place without legislation would be at the mercy of those currently in power.

The legislative chambers are governed by rules and housekeeping resolutions set at the beginning of every Legislature, which occurs every two years. And rules or processes related to sexual harassment training, like any other chamber rules, can be amended or wiped away at any time the majority of the chamber desires.

For example, Straus, who is retiring, has asked for a training program, but nothing would stop his successor from eliminating it later if it's only adopted as a chamber policy. And Spaw, who runs the program in the Senate, could be replaced by someone who doesn’t carry on with the training.

This dilemma isn’t unique to Texas. Across the country, making rules for “required training and other procedures” for elected officials is “generally left to party and chamber leaders” who change frequently, according to a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline.

If lawmakers did turn to the existing law to require training, the overall statute would probably need to be updated, state Rep. Donna Howard said, to provide guidance for what training programs should look like and penalties to enforce it. But Howard did underline the need for a solution that’s not dependent on elected officials.

Howard, along with other lawmakers, have also indicated that training isn’t the only solution Capitol leaders should consider. Some have called for an independent entity to oversee sexual harassment complaints. Others are seeking more punitive measures for individuals found guilty of misconduct.

"I think whatever method is used, it needs to be one that provides consistency and not be subject to whoever houses a particular office,” Howard, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Administration Committee, said Thursday. “So if that requires a statute, that’s what it should be."

Edgar Walters contributed to this report.


From The Texas Tribune

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.
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