The hallways of the Georgia State Capitol. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Sexual harassment policy takes hold at Georgia Capitol

Since Georgia legislators created sexual harassment rules two years ago, complaints have started to come in and lawmakers have been required to complete a short training session.

Two Capitol workers have been penalized for violations. Every state lawmaker watched a 25-minute sexual harassment video. A complaint against a state senator in 2018 was dismissed by his peers.

The effectiveness of the Capitol’s sexual harassment policy, instituted in the wake of nationwide allegations against politicians and media figures, remains a subject of debate among state legislators.

While lawmakers generally support the policy, some say more work remains to be done to prevent sexual harassment under the Gold Dome.

“It’s a new era for anti-harassment,” said Donald Cronin, who was hired last year as the General Assembly’s human resources director. “We’re taking it seriously. We’re making legislators do this on taxpayers’ time, so it’s important.”

The extent of the training for lawmakers involves watching a training video. The video, narrated by a male voice who describes inappropriate behavior, explains how discriminatory conduct can create a hostile work environment and outlines reporting requirements. Then legislators sign a form acknowledging they’ve completed the training.

Cronin said he hasn’t received any complaints against state legislators since training began in January 2019.

A sexual harassment complaint involving two employees resulted in a suspension without pay for several days, Cronin said. Another complaint involved a temporary employee who was barred from returning to work at the Capitol for the 2020 legislative session.

Further information about sexual harassment complaints is unavailable because the General Assembly long ago exempted itself from the state’s Open Records Act, meaning documents can remain confidential.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta, said sexual harassment policies need to be strengthened.

Under Senate rules unanimously approved last year, harassment complaints must be made within four years of the alleged incident. The rules also removed a restriction from complaints being filed against senators during election years. But the rules call for complaints to be dismissed if they don’t follow specific steps for reporting incidents.

“We should make the process easier, clearer, and try to make sure complaints aren’t getting thrown out on technicalities,” Jordan said. “The one bad thing about putting rules in place that are minimal is that sometimes that can give people cover to say we’ve done this work and there’s nothing to see. There needs to be a lot more done.”

Senate rules were revised after a lobbyist filed a sexual harassment complaint against then-state Sen. David Shafer, a Republican from Duluth who was running for lieutenant governor at the time. Shafer said the allegations were false, and the Senate Ethics Committee investigated and dismissed the complaint.

Across the country, at least 101 state legislators have been publicly accused of sexual harassment or misconduct since the start of 2017, according to a review The Associated Press published Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who is also the president of the Senate, said he’s proud of the bipartisan effort last year to expand protections for victims of sexual harassment.

“No legitimate complaint should ever be suppressed, dismissed or ignored simply because an alleged offender is running for office or a victim fears the process would not yield a fair hearing,” Duncan said.

Records kept by the General Assembly showed that every legislator had completed sexual harassment training in late 2018 or early 2019, except for one.

State Sen. Lester Jackson said he watched the training video but didn’t initially realize he needed to turn in a certificate acknowledging his participation. Jackson said he rewatched the video Thursday and filed the paperwork.

Jackson, a Democrat from Savannah, said the video is valuable because it puts lawmakers on notice about what behavior is inappropriate.

“It’s a needed step forward,” Jackson said. “If we don’t make the general public aware, instances of sexual harassment will happen time and time again.”

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