House votes to make sexual harassment training mandatory

  • The State House dome is seen on Nov. 18, 2016, as the restoration project nears completion. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 1/2/2019 2:31:13 PM

The New Hampshire House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to require its members to attend sexual harassment education training, a year after the #MeToo movement cast a spotlight on State House policies.

In a 284-92 vote, members opted to introduce a new rule – House Rule 67 – which would require all legislators and State House staff to “attend in-person education and training regarding sexual and other unlawful harassment and discrimination.”

The training sessions, held at the beginnings of each two-year legislative term, have previously been voluntary and sparsely attended.

But the rule change appeared to have an immediate effect; on Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of representatives showed up to a scheduled harassment hearing. At an earlier harassment training in February, fewer than 40 representatives and staff members appeared.

In recent years, the State House has wrestled with its harassment policy, which covers staff, officers, representatives, lobbyists and members of the public. In November 2017, more than a quarter of the House’s 400 representatives had not signed forms acknowledging they had even read the chamber’s harassment policy. That number diminished after media attention, though some holdouts continued to refuse to do so.

Meanwhile, former House chief of staff Terry Pfaff, serving under Speakers Shawn Jasper and Gene Chandler, fielded more than a dozen harassment complaints, in the last two years, records show, with at least one rising to the attention of the Attorney General’s office. The names of the accused are redacted from public view.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of representatives voted for the mandatory training attendance, with many lauding it as overdue.

“Two hours of the many many hours we spend serving our constituents to take this training will be time well spent,” said Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London.

And Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Strafford Democrat and long-time advocate for anti-harassment training, called it a crucial development.

“The mandatory training is a really, really great first step in recognizing that we work for our constituents, but we also work with each other and with employees at the State House,” Altschiller said. “And with members of the press, and with members of advocacy groups ... This is not a bubble. We are not immune to the laws when we step onto the floor of the House, and we should not be running around thinking that the rules don’t apply to us just because we are elected representatives.”

But some male members of the House objected to the rule has unnecessary and unconstitutional. Rep. Jim Belanger, a Hollis Republican, called it “an insult.”

“Is there a need for training?” he said. “Maybe so. I won’t dispute that. But should it be mandatory? Absolutely not.”

Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican, said he already knew how to behave respectfully. “My mother brought me up right,” he told the chamber. It was a point echoed by Rep. Jess Edwards, who cited “twenty to thirty years” of harassment trainings he has attended in the State House and military and added that the trainings should include more focus on those falsely accused.

“This course fails to talk about the rights of the accused and fails to talk about the recourse one might have should there be a false accusation,” Edwards said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jack Flanagan, a Brookline Republican, invoked his own experience, telling the chamber that he had been falsely accused of harassment during the 2015-16 session. And he argued that mandating the course is tantamount to declaring all representatives are sexual harassers. “What we’re really doing is saying: ‘Everyone is guilty – take the course’,” he said.

Ebel dismissed the concerns, calling the trainings valuable.

“As a woman, I personally would appreciate my peers taking the time to listen and to learn,” she said.

The rule change does not specify how failure to appear will be enforced. Democratic House Speaker Steve Shurtleff was not immediately available to comment.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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