BOISE — While some other statehouses around the country experienced a groundswell of harassment allegations in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Idaho capitol saw just a “small number” of complaints last year, a representative from the Attorney General’s office said.
A training session for lawmakers Jan. 9 outlined the Legislature’s new policies on harassment and discrimination, updated in November with recommendations from a Respectful Workplace Task Force formed in early 2018. It marked the second year the Legislature held such a training session, established in reaction to an increase in misconduct allegations in other statehouses across the U.S.
“The #MeToo movement has worked its way across the country, and it’s definitely here in Idaho as well,” Colleen Zahn, deputy attorney general with the Civil Litigation Division, told lawmakers. “I’d like to think in state government we aren’t seeing that at all, but time will tell.”
The Idaho statehouse has not, of course, been immune to high-profile harassment allegations in recent years; in 2017, an 18-year-old page reported that two lawmakers and a lobbyist behaved flirtatiously toward her and made unwanted comments on her appearance. The lawmakers were reprimanded and the page was moved to a different set of committees, the Idaho Statesman reported. That same year, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, was stripped of her committee assignments after suggesting that female lawmakers performed sexual favors to earn committee chairmanships.
The new guidelines more clearly establish reporting procedures for pages, interns and other employees — something the previous guidelines were lacking, said Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding who served on the Respectful Workplace committee.
“There was no set protocol on how to handle that, and in today’s world it needs to be there,” Toone told the Times-News. “If the #MeToo movement caused that oversight to be rectified, so be it. It was something that just needed to catch up with the 21st century.”
Sen. Michelle Stennett of Ketchum, the Senate Democratic leader, was one of 14 female legislators who signed a letter requesting mandatory sexual harassment training in 2017.
“It seems like a chunk out of our time, but overall I think it is a small investment on how we have our relationships down the road,” Stennett told the Times-News following the Respectful Workplace training session. “I would love to think that we’d wave a wand and everybody knows how to behave in the building. For the most part, we do a pretty spectacular job of it. But there’s always going to be pitfalls.”
Stennett said that since the first training last year, she has been more aware of her own behavior, particularly when interacting with subordinate staffers.
Meanwhile, some female lawmakers have expressed concerns that the new focus on harassment prevention and the rise in misconduct allegations nationwide have caused some male legislators to avoid one-on-one interactions with their female colleagues.
“The pendulum almost swung too far the other way,” Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, a Republican from Genesee who led the push for mandatory harassment training, said at the training session Wednesday.
Purposely avoiding female colleagues can be “really dangerous,” Zahn told the gathered lawmakers, as it can lead to other kinds of discrimination complaints.
While the capitol didn’t see a significant increase in harassment allegations last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found a 14 percent increase in sexual harassment charges across the country — including an uptick in Idaho, Zahn said. The Idaho Human Rights Commission also reported seeing a rise in sexual harassment complaints between Oct. 2017 and July 2018, with nearly a third of the employee discrimination-related complaints made during that period involving sexual harassment claims, as the Associated Press reported at the time.