(TOPEKA) — A Kansas City-based foundation responded Friday to concerns about culture in the Kansas Statehouse by releasing a list of sexual harassment policy recommendations, including awareness training and strengthened guidelines on relationships between officials and staffers.
The Women’s Foundation was commissioned in late October by Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, to recommend changes to the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, which hasn’t been updated in more than 20 years.
Wagle and foundation president and CEO Wendy Doyle announced the recommendations in a news conference Friday morning. The Legislative Coordinating Council, a group of Statehouse leaders, took the recommendations into consideration Friday afternoon, but did not take immediate action on implementing them.
The recommendations come on the heels of controversy about the way legislators and political officials respond to instances of alleged harassment and assault in Kansas politics. Former statehouse and campaign staffers claimed they had experienced or witnessed harassment, but received little to no help when they reported it.
Wagle said she decided to take action and commission the Women’s Foundation to update the policies after the “deeply troubling reports of sexual harassment and misconduct.”
“Sexual harassment cannot be tolerated in our communities – not in our workplaces and especially not here in the Kansas Capitol,” Wagle said. “The people of Kansas deserve elected officials who are held to the very highest standards of conduct.”
Gov. Sam Brownback said he had directed executive branch employees to review and sign sexual harassment policies.
“Sexual harassment is never acceptable,” Brownback said. “The people of Kansas expect and deserve professionalism in the halls of the statehouse and in all other areas of state government.”
The Women’s Foundation, a research and policy organization, recommended stronger guardrails surrounding the relationships between interns, staffers, elected officials and lobbyists; more women in leadership; and more third-party accountability to prevent harassment. The organization also suggested more awareness training and better resources for victims of harassment and assault.
Women’s Foundation President and CEO Wendy Doyle said Kansas lacked significant policy requirements. She said every instance of sexual harassment “is a setback for gender equity and opportunity.”
“That’s why the Women’s Foundation looks forward to helping the Kansas Legislature adopt these recommendations and working with leaders in other branches of state government, as well,” Doyle said. “Together, I’m confident we can make meaningful progress towards ending sexual harassment and promoting equity and opportunity for all women.”
House Speaker Pro Tempore Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, objected to the notion the Statehouse had a “culture” of sexual harassment. He said it was a problem but did not represent the culture of the Statehouse.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, pushed for more immediate implementation of two of the Women’s Foundation’s recommendations, sexual harassment training and a third-party investigator. Wagle, however, said the recommendations represented a long-term plan that would take time to put into action.
Wagle said she has been aware of several serious complaints that were dealt with in her time in office. Wagle was first elected to the Kansas House in 1990, when she said there were no ethics policies and legislators could drink alcohol and smoke in the Capitol.
“So it was a very, very, very different environment, and it was a male-dominated environment, so I would say harassment was more prevalent,” Wagle said.
Wagle said she was committed to handling any complaints that have happened recently.
“I’ve had a lot of communication with my majority leader in the Senate, Jim Denning, and with my minority leader, Tony Hensley, in the Senate, and we are all in agreement,” Wagle said. “We will not tolerate harassment. We all treat it the same, and there was one instance where the minority leader had a complaint, and he took care of it.”