Laura Hanson thought the sexual harassment training for legislative staffers at the Oregon Capitol would be a unifying event: a clear signal to everyone that harassment in Salem was not tolerated.
Instead, the rape survivor had to leave the training for 20 minutes because she was so upset. And she warned other victims of sexual assault who work in the Capitol to skip the trainings.
Sexual harassment, and how to prevent it in the future, has been a hot topic in Salem over the past year and a half. First, the state Legislature was rocked by accounts of a state senator who had repeatedly behaved inappropriately with women, including fellow lawmakers. Then an unprecedented investigation by the state labor department found that the Capitol is a hostile work environment.
Top lawmakers have promised to do more to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, including improved training. But on Wednesday night, Hanson told members of the newly created Committee on Culture that the current legislative training program was upsetting and offensive.
Legislative leaders said they are taking the concerns seriously. Similar training in the fall was well received, they said. They thanked people for coming forward and requested a new trainer for changes for next week's training session. They are requesting a formal response from the Equal Employment Opportunity Center — which oversees the training — that they said will be shared with all members and staff.
A Bad Experience
When Hanson shared her experience to lawmakers on Wednesday night, state Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, a member of the culture committee, said she heard the same from a Republican staffer.
Another lawmaker on the panel said she had heard similar rumblings.
The trainer did say one thing that Hanson took to heart: When someone has a bad experience, he or she should write it down.
So, Hanson started writing an email about the training that took place on Tuesday of this week.
“The trainer joked several times about those who complain about what has happened to them to HR,” Hanson wrote. “In her words: ‘As you all know, snitches get stitches.’”
The trainer, who was from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was seemingly there to “check a box,” Hanson said, “not to actually help us address the pervasive culture of harassment that has been allowed to thrive here.”
Beyond Being Tone Deaf
By Thursday morning, 23 legislative staffers had signed a letter complaining about the existing training and asking for sexual harassment training that wasn’t outdated.
“It could be said that the … statements were taken out of context,” they wrote.“It is our hope that the number of names below serves as an indication of how uncomfortable that context was.”
Hanson didn’t spearhead the letter, but she signed on.
She was raped while a student at the University of Oregon in a case that was highly publicized. Still, she says she remains worried that people will think she's overreacting or trying to make a difficult situation all about her.
She says she knows other people in the Capitol who don’t feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behavior for fear of being out of a job or ostracized. Hanson is part of newly created survivor’s caucus — a group of people who have been victimized that will meet to discuss legislation that could help improve the culture at the Capitol — that currently has nearly a dozen members.
Hanson, the chief of staff to state Sen. Sara Gelser, said the sexual harassment training she attended earlier this week went beyond being tone deaf. It seemed the person conducting the training, Hanson said, had no concept of the problems the state Legislature has been grappling with for the past year or the extreme power differentials in the building that make addressing harassment in the statehouse complicated.
“When unwanted touching was brought up as a form of ‘inappropriate workplace behavior,’ the trainer said: ‘We all know this is bad; we don’t need to talk about that.’ When sexual harassment was brought up, the trainer was equally as dismissive,” Hanson wrote.
She said the trainer encouraged people not to report unwanted advances, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment, or risk being branded a whistleblower.
Legislative leadership sent a letter to the staffers on Thursday.
“We are committed to building a better workplace environment where we prevent hostile actions before they occur and where everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” they wrote.
Changing A Culture Of Sexual Harassment
In the wake of the #metoo movement and the harassment scandal that led to Sen. Jeff Kruse's resignation, the Committee on Culture is considering how to create a better environment for victims of sexual harassment and to prevent harassment from happening in the first place.
They are considering how to create an independent equity office to address and investigate complaints. And they’re trying to figure out how to create confidentiality standards that both protect victims and allow for the identification of people who have a pattern of poor behavior.
One of the women who testified Wednesday night was an intern in Kruse’s office. Kruse has denied allegations of misconduct.
"I'm Anne Montgomery," the former intern told the panel. "But I'm better known as Student A."
Montgomery was referring to how she was identified in a report done by an independent investigator on behalf of the Legislature. She told lawmakers there has been a longstanding culture of sexual harassment in the building — as well as a “code of silence.”
She has recently felt empowered to come forward, with more women speaking up in general. She told lawmakers how difficult it was to share her story and shared how it cost her a career in the building. She worried that creating an equity office in the building that is overseen by a joint legislative committee would end up being another barrier to women speaking up.
“Many of us want to be heard, very few of us want to be identified, but all of us want this culture to change,” she told the panel.
“Today I’ve chosen to advocate for myself … and those who are inside this building who are silent.”
The Legislature is in the midst of a mediation session with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Representatives from the Legislature, victims of harassment and those representing the labor commission met for 14 hours on Monday. They did not reach a settlement.