By Johnathan Silver
The Texas House Administration Committee unanimously approved an updated sexual harassment policy Friday that gives examples of such harassment, offers guidance for internal and external complaint processes and lays out counseling information.
The policy also requires sexual harassment training for all House members, employees and interns, though it's not enforceable for legislators.
The move comes following media reports of sexual misconduct at the Capitol.
The old policy stated that victims or witnesses could confront the offender and ask the person to stop. The new policy says that that isn't required, but it could stop future offensive behavior.
"If you do not want to confront the offender directly, or if you have talked with the offender and the behavior has not stopped, or if you believe your complaint has resulted in retaliation, you may pursue a sexual harassment complaint as described below," the policy states.
The new policy offers multiple ways to report a complaint, including to the manager of the House Payroll/Personnel Department, the Civil Rights Division of the Texas Workforce Commission or the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The updated policy also states that confidentiality will be upheld for victims and that witnesses and others working on the House side who learn of a victim's identity are expected to maintain that confidentiality. The policy also offers information on how to get counseling and explicitly prohibits retaliation for reporting someone accused of harassment. Acts of retaliation could be a violation of state or federal law, the policy states.
The Daily Beast and The Texas Tribune last month detailed claims of sexual harassment and assault by male lawmakers and others at the Capitol. The reports mostly relied on anonymous sources.
At the beginning of the panel's meeting Friday, House Administration Committee Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, called the updated policy "a major improvement."
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said she hopes the updated policy makes it easier for victims to report their attackers. Howard said she has found that, as with sexual assaults on college campuses, "a lot of people do not report these incidents ... because they do not have confidence in the system."
Geren said he will ask House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to appoint a working group that would offer additional recommendations to further improve the guidelines before the 2019 legislative session.
Straus thanked the committee and other House members who offered input on the policy change.
"This new policy provides a much clearer statement that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the Texas House," he said in a statement to the American-Statesman. "It provides more specific guidance and protection for victims, it requires training of all members and employees, and it makes clear that any report of sexual harassment will be taken seriously. There is more work to do, and we will do it, but this is an important step."
Employees can be fired for their offenses, and lawmakers could face sanctions by the full House, including expulsion, he said. Geren said he "absolutely" would not have a problem pursuing a fellow lawmaker accused of wrongdoing.
"None of us are above the law on this and shouldn't be," Geren said.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has asked that chamber's Administration Committee Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to review sexual harassment policies.
(c)2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas