Legislative leaders say they're working to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, especially in the wake of a state report concluding that the Capitol has a hostile work environment.

They need to step up their efforts.

The latest example of how much work remains to improve the climate in the Capitol came last week, during a training session on sexual harassment for legislative staffers put on by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You may recall that this was the same training session that was postponed earlier because of the partial government shutdown.

The good news is that the session was rescheduled once the federal government opened its doors. The training was held this past Tuesday.

The bad news is that many of the participants — as many as two dozen, and on both sides of the political aisle, according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting — found the training not just tone-deaf and uninformed, but actually offensive.

The attendees included rape survivor Laura Hanson, who works as the chief of staff for state Sen. Sara Gelser, who represents the mid-valley. Gelser was among the legislators who filed formal complaints against former Sen. Jeff Kruse, who repeatedly behaved inappropriately with women, investigators found. And Gelser was among the legislators interviewed by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries for its report concluding that the Capitol has a hostile work environment.  (The Legislature and the bureau are in the midst of a mediation effort to reach a settlement regarding the report, but a 14-hour session on Monday did not yield a final result.)

So there was plenty of ground for the trainer to cover in Tuesday's session. But Hanson told the Legislature's new Joint Committee on Capitol Culture during a Wednesday meeting that she felt compelled to leave the training session after just 20 minutes.

For starters, Hanson told legislators, the trainer seemed to have little knowledge of the problems that have come to light over the past year regarding sexual harassment in the state Legislature or the power differentials in statehouses that can provide fertile ground for harassment. For example, the trainer dismissed the notion of unwanted touching by saying "We all know this is bad; we don't need to talk about that" and was equally dismissive of the topic of sexual harassment, according to an email Hanson wrote. 

That's bad enough. But Hanson also said that the trainer encouraged people not to report unwanted advances or sexual harassment for fear of being labeled a whistleblower. "As you all know, snitches get stitches," Hanson quoted the trainer as saying.

Now, there may be a slight possibility that the trainer's comments somehow were misunderstood — but by midweek, 23 legislative staffers had signed a letter complaining about the trainer and asking for training that wasn't ill-informed and didn't seem to date back to the 19th century. Legislative leaders said they would ask for a response from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and requested a different trainer for a session scheduled for this week.

During the Wednesday meeting of the Joint Committee on Capitol Culture, committee member Rep. Sherrie Sprenger from Scio said she had heard similar complaints about last week's training from Republican staffers.

The committee also heard testimony from other women who talked about the code of silence that allows sexual harassment and misconduct to continue unchecked — and how women who have dared to speak up have paid a dear price in terms of their careers.

It was testimony that underscored the importance of the committee's charge. But the committee clearly has its work cut out for it. And the same is true for state and legislative leaders, who have talked a good game about fixing the poisonous culture in the Capitol but who now must back up that talk with action. (mm)

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