Legislature puts focus on sexual harassment

SALEM — The intense national focus on sexual misconduct came to Oregon's capital this week, when lawmakers were given a training session on harassment and how to report it.

A review of the state legislature's policy on improper behavior, meanwhile, is awaiting the outcome of an investigation of state Sen. Jeff Kruse —  a Roseburg Republican whose district stretches into Jackson County — who has been accused by two female senators of hugging too closely, and of other inappropriate touching.

Kruse, the only Oregon lawmaker to be accused, has denied inappropriate conduct, and thus far has resisted calls for him to resign. Courtney removed the senator from the committees he sits on due to the accusations.

For the first time, the training was also offered to executive branch employees, lobbyists and others who work in the Capitol, said Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat. Previously, it was required for legislators and legislative employees.

Among those attending was Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from the college town of Corvallis who was one of the women who filed a complaint against Kruse.

People "should be empowered to speak up," Gelser said on Twitter. "But victims should not be shamed or punished for not sharing their story when they don't feel safe. Ending abuse is responsibility of abusers and employers — not victims."

To accommodate the larger crowd, the training was conducted on Tuesday inside the main ballroom of the Salem Convention Center. The training was provided by lawyers for the Legislature and its director of human resources.

Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from Coos Bay, said through a spokeswoman that "these trainings are critical, especially for new members and/or staff."

Oregon is one of at least 27 states in the U.S. that requires lawmakers from both chambers in legislatures to undergo sexual harassment training. Oregon's policy on sexual harassment is highlighted by the National Conference of State Legislatures as an example of a strong one, along with those of Alabama, Hawaii, Colorado and Maryland. A legislative subcommittee in Alaska is looking at Oregon as a model as it considers how to rewrite that state's guidelines.

"Oregon has a lot of elements that we consider a strong policy should have," said Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Oregon Legislature is considering making it even stronger.

Oregon's policy describes an informal reporting process, and a formal one. Retaliation for making complaints is prohibited.

"An appointing authority or supervisor shall take appropriate action to prevent, promptly correct and report harassment about which the appointing authority or supervisor knew or, with the exercise of reasonable care, should have known," the policy says.

An independent third party will review the policies and may suggest changes, said Aaron Fiedler, communications director for the House Majority Office.

"We anticipate we will learn a lot from what happens with that process," Fiedler said.

Courtney said it's important for the training to be held regularly. In Oregon, it is annual.

"As I said in my opening remarks ... practice and repetition help athletes perform at a higher level on game day. The best teams don't take days off," Courtney said in an email. "In the same way, we provide this training every year. It helps members of the Capitol community treat each other and the public with respect."

Rep. Julie Parrish, a Republican representing a district near Portland, said the session this year had a bigger focus on how to report harassment.

"I think most of what they provide is common sense," Parrish said.

Tuesday's session also discussed how to avoid harassment situations and provided several examples of types of behavior that should be avoided, said Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Democrat from Portland.

Some lawmakers, though, believe the sessions are too repetitive.

"I've talked to others who complained that we get the same thing year after year and they never change the PowerPoint slides. So I wasn't alone in that assessment," said Rep. Jeff Barker, a Democrat from Aloha, a community near Portland.

The PowerPoint presentation addresses identifying workplace harassment and discrimination, how to report incidents, and the illegality of retaliating against someone who complains.

Courtney said he wants feedback so the training sessions can be improved.

 

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