BOISE — The second day of the 2018 legislative session saw Idaho lawmakers undergo mandatory training to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, a reaction to the recent groundswell of misconduct allegations in statehouses across the U.S.
Two separate hour-and-a-half-long training sessions for legislators, staffers, and lobbyists included a discussion of potential changes to the Legislature’s anti-harassment policies, including additional avenues for reporting complaints.
A small working group to review the Legislature’s harassment policies, led by Sen. Cherie Buckner Webb (D-Boise) and Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy (R-Genesee) is also in the works, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said.
“With the events of the past few months, it became very clear that even though we don’t think we have a problem here particularly, when you look at some of the people who have been accused out there, they’re not necessarily people that I would have thought,” Hill told an audience of staffers and lobbyists in the second session of the day.
A draft of the Legislature’s updated anti-harassment policies, available online as of the morning of Jan. 9, clarifies that sexual misconduct investigations may be handled independently by the Attorney General’s office, and expands the avenues available for reporting complaints. The new proposed policies do not, however, allow anyone other than a lawmaker to file a formal ethics complaint against another lawmaker.
The updated draft also makes it clear that there will be penalties for reporting unfounded, “malicious” complaints, Hill noted— “because you’re ruining people’s lives that way as well.”
The training on Tuesday consisted of thorough definitions of different types of harassment, discussion of hypothetical situations that could qualify as harassment, and real-life examples of inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
“If you’ve been in public service, a lot of it you’ve heard before,” said Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding, after the lawmakers’ training session. “But it’s good to have it reinforced.”
Though the #MeToo movement hasn’t hit the Idaho statehouse to the extent that it has other states, Gem State lawmakers and other government employees haven’t been immune to allegations of sexual misconduct in recent years.
A complaint made during the 2017 legislative session accused Rep. James Holtzclaw (R-Meridian) of making inappropriate “flirty” comments to at least two women; Holtzclaw later apologized and called the allegations a “huge misunderstanding.”
Last month, the Idaho State Controller’s Office settled a sexual and racial harassment claim from a former employee, who claimed that Chief of Staff Dan Goicoechea “often demeaned and degraded women and minorities” in the workplace through inappropriate comments and behaviors.
And the training took place just hours after former Rep. Brandon Hixon (R-Caldwell), who resigned from office in October while under criminal investigation for possible sexual abuse, was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A letter signed by 14 female lawmakers in November called for mandatory sexual harassment training in the statehouse. Legislative leaders had already been planning an anti-harassment training course for the beginning of the upcoming session, Hill and House Speaker Scott Bedke said at the time.
While lawmakers sat through the presentation Tuesday afternoon, a handful of women stood in the rotunda of the capitol building, listening to a pitch for laws that would more harshly penalize employers for condoning or ignoring harassment.
Tuesday’s harassment training is “a good start, and we applaud the legislature for taking it,” said Joy McKinnon, vice president of Southwest Idaho NOW, the National Organization for Women, addressing the small crowd gathered. “But it’s not enough.
“The ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘it’s just his generation’ culture won’t end without strong laws,” McKinnon said. “This is a legislature full of gentlemen, and we’re positive they will look at things differently now, and do the right thing to protect victims.”