Memo reveals sexual harassment policy for Vt. lawmakers inadequate

Published: Dec. 20, 2017 at 4:51 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Sexual harassment has dominated headlines and sparked a national conversation since Vermont lawmakers adjourned for the year in June. Legislative leaders are pledging to revisit sexual harassment policies after a confidential memo revealed the current policy may be inadequate.

"The world has changed a lot since the Legislature was last in session," said Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

With sexual harassment allegations coming to light nationally, Johnson asked legislative lawyers to review the House policy. They did, and a December 12 memo to the speaker highlights a dozen potential shortcomings in the policies lawmakers created to govern themselves. "It's time to catch our sexual harassment policy in the Statehouse up with where we are in the world today," Johnson said.

The Senate has a separate but nearly identical policy to the House. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden County, says he agrees the policies needs review. "As we head into this session we have made a firm commitment we would be revisiting the policies and also retraining the committee itself that hears the cases," Ashe said.

Legislative lawyers worry the policy encourages victims to informally resolve issues with the accused. The memo says that may place the burden on victims. It also says the policies may want to provide examples of possible sanctions used to resolve accusations.

The House and Senate panels that receive and adjudicate complaints are comprised solely of lawmakers. The memo suggests expanding the panels so lawmakers are not the only ones casting judgment. It also says current policy may lead some to believe the "deck is stacked."

"We'll be looking at all of these things come January with a range of voices at the table," Johnson said.

The memo also highlights the confidentiality policy. The legislative council says it could shield repeat offenders, erode faith in the policy and panel, and discourage victims from coming forward. The speaker says that's worth addressing. "Certainly, when it gets to the point of somebody, of an authorized panel voting of -- in fact -- somebody's behavior was way out of line and inappropriate, then perhaps it shouldn't be confidential," Johnson said.

Alexandra Clauss is an expert in employment law. She helps companies develop sexual harassment policies. Clauss says the House and Senate policies would not meet the standards in statute that the private sector must follow. "There are elements in the Vermont law that the House and Senate are missing," she said.

Clauss says neither policy states that sexual harassment is unlawful, as required in law. Nor do they include basic contact information for the panel members who can receive complaints. She says the policy should also require lawmakers to be more proactive. "Both policies should have a proactive obligation on members of the House and Senate to intervene and to report sexual harassment if they hear about it or if they witness it," Clauss said.

Johnson and Ashe say the confidentiality question is likely to be among the most difficult areas for lawmakers to get right.