N.H. lawmakers get two different flavors of anti-harassment training

  • House lawmakers attend an anti-sexual harassment training hosted by the state’s Attorney General Office on Monday, Jan 27. Ethan DeWitt—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/27/2020 6:56:21 PM
Modified: 1/27/2020 6:56:04 PM

The intent was clear, supporters say: Require House lawmakers to attend anti-sexual harassment and discrimination training, just like any major job.

But a year after House Democrats passed a rule mandating that every House representatives attend the training, some lawmakers continue to refuse to do so.

Despite four opportunities over the past year, nearly 60 of the 400 House lawmakers had not attended an anti-harassment training as of last Friday, according to the House Speaker’s Office.

Now, after some Republican representatives voiced outcry at the new training mandate introduced in early 2019, one legislator has broken off to host his own version of the trainings.

Those alternative trainings, led by Rep. Jess Edwards, include detailed explanations of the State House anti-harassment policy and federal case law.

But they also include large portions dedicated to warning lawmakers about false accusations – and learning how to deal with them. He cited several cases in his presentation and when women purportedly falsely accused men.

Edwards said his focus was meant to help lawmakers understand the political dynamics around accusations and make better decisions.

“I’m teaching legislators as a legislator,” he said in an interview Monday. “So it’s different, we’re different. We’re a different audience. We have different information needs.”

But proponents of anti-harassment training argued the alternative approach detracts from the point of the Attorney General’s training, and instead teaches lawmakers to be overly defensive. And they chastised the Speaker’s office for giving the training the green light.

“The whole idea of doing this is that we are professionals who want to do the right thing,” said Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat who pushed for the anti-harassment training. “And then to have a member go rogue and develop their own idea of what sexual harassment training is without input to anyone else is really just mocking the idea that we should all level set to work in an environment of professionalism.”

On Monday, those tensions played out at the State House. In the morning, one set of lawmakers heard from an associate attorney general, who delivered the Department of Justice’s standard presentation for lawmakers and state employees.

In the afternoon, another set heard from Rep. Edwards, who presented a similar presentation – with a notably different spin. Both had been sanctioned by Speaker Steve Shurtleff.

Over 75 minutes, Edwards outlined the State House’s harassment rules, detailing what conduct could be deemed inappropriate, and how complaints can be lodged and filed.

He laid out a number of behaviors that are forbidden, such as retaliation against accusers and dove into the intricacies of the State House’s “blended workplace” with lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, members of the public and press interacting all day, each accountable to different employers.

It’s an environment, Edwards said, that can make it difficult to report and likely means that a lot of harassment in the building goes unreported.

“It’s awkward,” he said. “So you can see why they may just grin and bear it.”

But Edwards also stressed that potential for false accusations, pointing on a slide to numerous historical examples, including a Rolling Stone story about a rape accusation at the University of Virginia that was later retracted; accusations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh leading up to his confirmation vote; witch trials; and the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American child lynched in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman.

“It requires us to be better than our natural angels,” Edwards said. “We have to live to a higher standard.”

The key, Edwards argued, is to stay alert and adjust behavior if offense is taken. Under a slide titled “How to Protect Yourself,” he stressed that at all times, lawmakers should only talk like they would around the Thanksgiving table with their mom – and to apologize quickly and fully if something were said that could cause offense.

But he also advised lawmakers to initiate their “Spidey sense” during situations that he said might be misinterpreted and used against them. In those cases, lawmakers should document everything that happened, “tell multiple people what happened rapidly,” seek legal advice and “contingency plan your media response,” the slide read.

Speaking to a group of about 10 lawmakers Monday afternoon, Edwards found a crowd eager to air grievances. Many lamented what they said was an environment where accusations can fly freely, with no consequences for the accusers.

“I think we have to remember the world we’re living in,” said Rep. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican. “If you think you can shield yourself from this, you’re living in a dream world.”

In a statement Saturday, Shurtleff said he had authorized the hearing based on the credentials of Edwards.

“As Speaker of the House I take harassment against members of the public, staff or against elected members of the General Court very seriously,” he said.

He added: “When Representative Edwards approached me about giving a training, he showed me that he was credentialed by the U.S. military to conduct harassment trainings. I felt that if he was credentialed by the military, he should be allowed to give a training to fellow House members and so I allowed it.”

The Speaker’s Office said it had not reviewed the material presented by Edwards ahead of time.

The dueling hearings come after a rule change passed by the House in January 2019. Newly in control of the New Hampshire House, Democratic representatives passed Rule 67, which mandates that state lawmakers and staff “attend in-person education and training regarding sexual and other unlawful harassment and discrimination.”

That rule did not specify what hearings would qualify, and it did not detail what the punishment is for lawmakers who don’t attend.

But it did spark objections from some Republican representatives, who argued they shouldn’t be mandated to attend and that they should answer to voters for their behavior.

Some have taken to Facebook, vowing to stay away from the training – mandate or no mandate.

“6,104 voters in 2018 said I do not have to take this anti-white man training,” said Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, in a comment on a public Facebook post on Jan. 16.

“I say NO and I wont,” Burt added in a post. “Why you ask? Because my mother raised me right so I do not need to.”

Other representatives agreed in follow-up comments.

Last Thursday, Shurtleff published in the House calendar a list of 59 representatives who had not attended the trainings.

It was unclear how many remained by the end of the day Monday, but a House spokesperson said up to 35 may have attended.

When it comes to the training, Shurtleff’s position has shifted over the years.

When running for Speaker after the 2018 Democratic wave, Shurtleff said the anti-harassment training would be mandatory and promised tough sanctions against lawmakers that refuse to attend – including removing parking spots or taking lawmakers off committees.

As Speaker, he has pulled back somewhat. On Monday, the office said “the Speaker feels a formal reprimand by the House is a more appropriate action.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at ede witt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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