If Sexual Harassment of Legislative Interns is a Problem, Don't Punish the Interns

By Daily Editorials

March 8, 2018 7 min read

There's a proposal afoot to address the sexual harassment of interns in the Missouri Legislature by simply suspending the internship program. As if to say: If you have a problem with too many people being victimized by crime, the solution is to get rid of the victims.

There's only one way to address the sexual harassment problem, and that's for state lawmakers to hold their colleagues fully responsible and further strengthen anti-harassment policies. The Legislature's #MeToo moment is now, and forcing greater accountability is the best way to eliminate the problem.

The state beefed up training and anti-harassment policiesafter former Republican House Speaker John Diehl Jr. resigned in 2015 because of a sex-texting scandal with a 19-year-old intern. Democratic state Sen. Paul LeVota resigned the following July after two interns accused him of sexual harassment.

Missouri then drew well-deserved, nationwide derision for an embarrassing proposal to address the problem by requiring a "modest, conservative" dress code for interns, touted as a way to reduce temptations for those state lawmakers prone to making unwanted advances.

After dumping that suggestion, the Legislature got serious, embracing requirements such as annual sexual harassment training, mandating the reporting of complaints and requiring the hiring of independent attorneys to investigate when lawmakers are accused.

Since then, six formal sexual harassment complaints have been filed in the Missouri House, four of which required investigations by independent attorneys. Details of the complaints are not public, and it's unclear if any involved interns.

That was twice as many complaints as the House received from 2013 to 2015. There's no telling whether the increase is due to more sexual harassment or better reporting channels and heightened awareness.

Last month, Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, D-Ferguson, proposed suspending the internship program to "reset the culture" and "force us to have a real conversation about what we're here for and how we should act and behave." Well-meaning as he might have been, the idea was a non-starter.

Missouri is hardly alone with this problem. Stateline, a Pew Charitable Trusts initiative covering state policy trends, says that since October, about two dozen male state lawmakers around the country have either resigned, said they will resign or been forced from leadership roles after harassment or assault accusations.

Stateline notes that unpaid interns typically are not protected from workplace harassment under the federal Civil Rights Act because they are not considered employees. In Missouri, student interns may receive stipends from their universities or academic credit but are not paid by legislators or the state.

States such as New York and Washington set limits on interactions and fraternization between lawmakers and interns. Colorado State University shuttles interns to and from the state Capitol, where a professor watches over them.

There's a proposal afoot to address the sexual harassment of interns in the Missouri Legislature by simply suspending the internship program. As if to say: If you have a problem with too many people being victimized by crime, the solution is to get rid of the victims.

There's only one way to address the sexual harassment problem, and that's for state lawmakers to hold their colleagues fully responsible and further strengthen anti-harassment policies. The Legislature's #MeToo moment is now, and forcing greater accountability is the best way to eliminate the problem.

The state beefed up training and anti-harassment policiesafter former Republican House Speaker John Diehl Jr. resigned in 2015 because of a sex-texting scandal with a 19-year-old intern. Democratic state Sen. Paul LeVota resigned the following July after two interns accused him of sexual harassment.

Missouri then drew well-deserved, nationwide derision for an embarrassing proposal to address the problem by requiring a "modest, conservative" dress code for interns, touted as a way to reduce temptations for those state lawmakers prone to making unwanted advances.

After dumping that suggestion, the Legislature got serious, embracing requirements such as annual sexual harassment training, mandating the reporting of complaints and requiring the hiring of independent attorneys to investigate when lawmakers are accused.

Since then, six formal sexual harassment complaints have been filed in the Missouri House, four of which required investigations by independent attorneys. Details of the complaints are not public, and it's unclear if any involved interns.

That was twice as many complaints as the House received from 2013 to 2015. There's no telling whether the increase is due to more sexual harassment or better reporting channels and heightened awareness.

Last month, Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, D-Ferguson, proposed suspending the internship program to "reset the culture" and "force us to have a real conversation about what we're here for and how we should act and behave." Well-meaning as he might have been, the idea was a non-starter.

Missouri is hardly alone with this problem. Stateline, a Pew Charitable Trusts initiative covering state policy trends, says that since October, about two dozen male state lawmakers around the country have either resigned, said they will resign or been forced from leadership roles after harassment or assault accusations.

Stateline notes that unpaid interns typically are not protected from workplace harassment under the federal Civil Rights Act because they are not considered employees. In Missouri, student interns may receive stipends from their universities or academic credit but are not paid by legislators or the state.

States such as New York and Washington set limits on interactions and fraternization between lawmakers and interns. Colorado State University shuttles interns to and from the state Capitol, where a professor watches over them.

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