Lawmakers may review state sexual harassment rules

Hartford — Lawmakers describe the Connecticut General Assembly's sexual harassment policies as robust, but they say the recent wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations nationwide may spark a review of existing rules.

Connecticut is not among the majority of states actively reviewing sexual harassment policies for lawmakers, according to state officials and a recent Associated Press review. But the state strengthened its rules three years before the recent sexual harassment reports that have inspired most state houses across the country to consider enhanced guidelines and more comprehensive training programs.

In 2014, Connecticut's Office of Legislative Management, which provides administrative and operational support to the General Assembly, expanded its sexual harassment prevention training to include all employees, not merely supervisors as mandated by state law.

"We constantly review our HR policies," said Jim Tamburro, the office's human resources administrator.

He noted the office also updated its sexual harassment complaint procedure in 2014, better defining "where and to whom employees should go if they have a complaint."

Connecticut also finds itself in the minority of states when it comes to independent investigations: Along with just nine other states, both chambers of the General Assembly conduct external investigations of sexual harassment complaints, the AP found. 

Still, just as Gov. Dannel Malloy recently ordered a state agency review of sexual harassment training compliance, lawmakers said they may look for ways to enhance General Assembly policies during the new session.

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said lawmakers would reach out to the Office of Legislative Management to see if there are opportunities to improve, "given the current climate."

"I think it's a timely question and I think it's something we'll be looking at," Formica said. "I know we have a very good department that looks over all of these training opportunities. We have a pretty good program in place."

Advocates and lawmakers focused on the potential to provide more in-depth or more frequent training; some states require annual or biannual training for lawmakers, whereas Connecticut only requires one session, according to the AP.

"We're at a critical time with the national spotlight on sexual harassment and all forms of sexual violence," said Laura Cordes, executive director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. "We really owe it to the survivors and residents in the state to re-examine harassment policies in every institution and workplace. We want to employ new strategies and give victims new reporting options."

Complaints spike in recent months

Statewide, approximately 150 sexual harassment complaints were filed with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in each of the last three years. But last October's 33 complaints were the highest monthly total during that span, according to commission statistics. December saw 25 sexual harassment complaints filed through the commission, the second-highest monthly total in three years.

On Dec. 26, Malloy signed an executive order directing all executive branch agencies to review sexual harassment policies due to the recent "heightened awareness about the prevalence of predatory harassment and the role of power differentials in the workplace."

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, described the governor's order as "appropriate and timely."

"It's always good to take another look to see if you can improve in any way," she said. "This conversation has been going on for decades, for centuries, and women's voices are now being heard. You want to have a safe and secure workplace, and I think the conversation is healthy to have."

McCarty, who co-chairs the General Assembly's internship program, noted the training helps "everyone in the building," not just lawmakers.

In 2015, the General Assembly prohibited sexual harassment toward unpaid interns across the state.

The Department of Administrative Services will conduct the review of state agencies, determining whether they meet or exceed mandated training requirements, and whether programs can be improved. The DAS must deliver a report with recommendations on any potential additional measures to the governor's desk by Feb. 1. Malloy then will share the findings with the legislative and judicial branches.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, described the training for lawmakers as comprehensive.

"I felt it covered the issues that needed to be raised in a sensible, down-to-earth way, and made very clear what constituted an incident, and if an incident occurred, what your lines of report were," Cheeseman said. "I felt everyone took it very seriously. In the year I've been here, I've never witnessed anything that comes close (to sexual harassment), or even heard any off-color jokes. I suspect 20 years ago, it was a very different climate."

b.kail@theday.com

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