News · 01.8.19

Texas needs a sexual harassment policy holding wrongdoers accountable

Texas needs a sexual harassment policy holding wrongdoers accountable

Tuesday marks the beginning of the 86th legislative session. It’s a day when the slate still feels clean, acrimony has not yet begun and the battles that will bring enmity have not yet been forged. But this swearing-in day feels different because a cloud of unresolved sexual harassment claims swirls over the Capitol.

In the past couple of years, credible claims of sexual harassment have emerged from outside the shadows of secret chat rooms and whispered conversations among the women who work in and around the Capitol, claims that should not be ignored nor given an appearance of concern with no consequential change to follow.

These claims know no partisan bounds, from those raised in news reports against Sen. Boris Miles and former Sen. Carlos Uresti, both Democrats, to those that recently emerged against Republican Sen. Charles Schwertner — all of whom have denied the accusations. The claim against Schwertner was the only one that culminated in an investigation, prompted because Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 requires it when a college student is on the receiving end. In this instance, a University of Texas graduate student received sexually explicit text messages and photos that she believed came from Schwertner.

That investigation, and its inability to make a conclusive determination because the senator wouldn’t fully cooperate, highlights the limits of systems that should protect students, employees and others against sexual harassment in the course of their schooling or work, but do not.

Though the Texas Senate has recently undergone a rewrite of its own anti-harassment policy, there is still absolutely nothing in place to provide legitimate recourse to people who suffer sexual harassment at the hands of a legislator. Perhaps that is why no sexual harassment complaint has been filed in the Texas Capitol since 2001.

Part of the challenge is that there still is no designated, independent, third-party investigator to whom such complaints can be made, although such a body exists for claims of financial improprieties by members of the Texas Legislature: the Texas Ethics Commission, which has the power to subpoena and compel testimony.

Another challenge, made abundantly clear by UT’s investigation of claims against Schwertner, is the inability of a university acting within the bounds of Title IX to subpoena needed documentary evidence or compel witness testimony. No such power rests within the Texas House or Senate either, providing wrongdoers with the ability to cloak bad behavior behind a screen of secrecy. The UT investigation, for example, raised the possibility that Schwertner may be providing an “untruthful” narrative, but UT’s inability to compel information from him frustrated its capacity to determine the legitimacy of his claims.

Sadly, even if the best evidentiary system were available, and even if an independent third party reviewed claims of harassment, the Senate’s new anti-harassment policy fails to define consequences to which an offending member could be held, leaving a prospective complainant with no assurances that anything would result from coming forward, though the complainant would likely be exposed.

Texans who work in and around the Capitol and who come into contact with legislators deserve better. We deserve the development of a policy that invites the input of organizations and individuals with experiences and knowledge that can inform what such a policy should look like.

It is my hope that the policy recently unveiled by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is simply a starting point and that it will be followed by a thorough public hearing process. That process must end the status-quo protection of legislators and create a vetted and thorough policy for holding wrongdoers accountable.

A true care and concern for the safety and sanctity of the women and men who work in the Texas Capitol requires it. And you and I should demand it.

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