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Idaho lawmakers undergo anti-sexual harassment training

Lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and Statehouse staffers file into the Lincoln Auditorium, the Idaho state Capitol’s largest hearing room, on Tuesday for mandatory anti-sexual harassment training. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

Hundreds of Idaho legislators, Statehouse staffers, reporters and lobbyists underwent “respectful workplace” training on Tuesday, and top legislative leaders vowed that harassment is “never acceptable in the Idaho state Capitol.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, Rexburg, added, “This is not just sexual harassment, but any kind of harassment.”

In two 90-minute sessions, Statehouse regulars heard from two attorneys with years of experience in workplace harassment litigation, one of whom is the state’s current human resources director, Susan Buxton.

“Your intention doesn’t matter,” Buxton told the crowd. “It actually matters how it’s being perceived by the person who’s receiving that.”

After discussion of a California case in which a sheriff who frequently hugged his female staffers was sued for sexual harassment, Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, who launched a letter signed by more than dozen female lawmakers requesting the training, told Buxton and fellow presenter Colleen Zahn, “I’m a hugger – these are my friends. … I don’t have a higher level of power than they do, we are all elected officials together. I think that’s probably one of the biggest questions that we have, is how do we keep our culture here at the Statehouse and continue to be friends, if that’s appropriate or not?”

Buxton said, “Remember what harassment is: It’s unwanted attention or behavior. It’s the unwanted part – that’s when it becomes harassment.”

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, a consultant, former women’s center director and professor of gender studies, said, “Many people are walking around with complex histories,” such that even an innocent hug might trigger a difficult reaction. She suggested “to think, ‘Hey, maybe I should just ask.’ Say, ‘Hey, do you mind if I give you a hug today? You look like you could use one.’ That kind of clears it up, I think,” she said.

Nilsson Troy, who was dressed all in black on Tuesday in solidarity with the “Time’s Up” movement launched at the Golden Globe awards earlier in the week – standing against sexual harassment and misconduct – said afterward, “I thought Rep. Wintrow’s comments were a very nice reminder. When you’re engaging others, you can’t always tell that somebody’s uncomfortable – but sometimes, you’re not paying enough attention. I think it’s good to be more aware.”

The Idaho Legislature has its own history with sexual harassment, including the resignation and prosecution of former Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, five years ago for sexually harassing a Senate staffer.

Last year, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, was stripped of her committee assignments for three weeks after she charged that her female House colleagues get ahead in leadership only if they “spread their legs.” Her committee assignments were restored after she retracted her claim and apologized; Scott sat near the front at Tuesday’s training, and approached one of the presenters afterward with a question, as did several lawmakers.

Hill said, “We want to make it perfectly clear that harassment is never acceptable in the Idaho state Capitol.” He unveiled new anti-harassment policies that allow multiple avenues for reporting complaints, including to a person of the victim’s gender, if desired, but said the policies are “a work in progress,” and invited further input.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “You have our commitment that this is not just a one-time thing – we are taking this absolutely seriously. … This just needs to be the start of a discussion.”

He and Hill invited lawmakers and others to help revise the draft policies, and Bedke said he’s willing to consider “what is the overlap with this and the ethics committees,” something minority Democrats have stressed. Under current House and Senate ethics rules, only a legislator can file an ethics complaint against another legislator – raising questions about what happens when a legislator might be the harasser, and the victim might be a lobbyist, reporter, staffer, member of the public or even a teenage page.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, gave the session high marks. “It was a good starting point, and it helps us get the ball rolling. I think there’s more to learn,” he said. “I think there’s a learning curve for all of us.”

Nilsson Troy noted that the Legislature is different from a regular workplace – for example, Bedke doesn’t do her performance review, she noted. Instead, that’s the role of her 45,000-plus constituents in Latah County.

But she praised Hill and Bedke for taking a leadership role on the issue. “I think that’s probably the most important thing – it’s the tone at the top that makes the difference,” she said.

And she said the legal tips were helpful, as lawmakers ponder how to preserve their collegial culture without causing discomfort to each other or others who interact with them at the Statehouse. “I think the most important thing to insure that we have a good culture here is to make sure we have clarity on what’s right and what’s appropriate,” she said.