State Senate adopts changes to sexual harassment policy

A Minnesota Senate committee unanimously approved a revamp of its internal sexual harassment policy on Monday in response to the #MeToo movement and after allegations of harassment prompted one senator to resign.

The new policy, the first update in decades, explicitly lays out where an employee can turn if they feel they’ve been harassed or discriminated against, and it creates new options for investigating a report. Each report of harassment involving a staffer will either be investigated internally by the Senate, or the staffer has the option to seek a hearing with a retired judge.

The changes also apply to people at the Capitol who are not elected officials or staffers. That includes vendors, lobbyists, constituents or other individuals who routinely work inside the building. Previously, the Senate’s policy addressed only direct staff and lawmakers.

In December of 2017, former DFL Sen. Dan Schoen resigned after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment. Schoen denied the allegations, but he said he could no longer operate effectively. House Republican Rep. Tony Cornish also resigned following allegations from women who came forward at the height of the #MeToo Movement, which encouraged women and men to share their experiences with harassment in the workplace.

The situation exposed flaws in the Senate policy, including no reporting options for individuals outside of the Capitol and few options to handle allegations against a sitting legislator, who has an election certificate and cannot be fired like a staff member can.

The new policy requires leaders of both major parties to be consulted about any discipline involving a complaint against a legislator, and leaders can direct the legislator to apologize, stop the conduct, seek counseling or remove them from leadership positions or committees.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who led the push to change the policy, said she is also seeking an amendment to the Senate’s permanent rules to allow the  ethics committee to meet year-round to address any allegations that could come up.

They are the first changes to the Senate harassment policy since 1990.

“As harassment stories emerged in the press last year, Senate leadership determined to review and improve existing harassment policy,” Benson said. “That policy was a solid policy, but we needed a clearer path for people who were going to go through this process. And we needed to make sure our policy helps us continually improve our culture, so that harassment and discrimination don’t interfere with anyone’s progress in their career or their ability to work here at the Senate.”

Under the new policy, any investigation involving a sexual harassment complaint is considered private data, but the Senate cannot prevent anyone involved from making the information public. The changes also require the Senate to report annually how many cases of harassment and discrimination were filed, including the number of substantiated cases and any instances involving some kind of settlement or use of taxpayer money.

Other changes to the policy include:

  • Sexual harassment and discrimination training required every two years
  • New language barring retaliation against someone who reports harassment or discrimination
  • A requirement that any investigation must be completed within 30 days unless an extension is granted

The Minnesota House adopted similar changes to its policy last year.

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