Sexual harassment makes Iowa Capitol no place for teens

Legislative page program should be paused until Statehouse culture changes

Each year the Iowa Senate, House and Legislative Services Agency employ high school juniors and seniors as pages. Unless persistent and significant workplace culture questions are answered, 2018 should be an exception.

It’s been nearly five months since an Iowa court found that Kirsten Anderson, a former Iowa Senate Republican caucus staff member, was wrongfully terminated hours after she reported sexual harassment. It’s been more than a month since the state settled the case without an appeal, agreeing to pay Anderson and her attorneys $1.75 million from the state’s coffers.

To date, no one has been held accountable.

Sexual Harassment - A portion of the Iowa Senate GOP's internal investigation report atop a picture of the Iowa Statehouse.
A portion of the Iowa Senate GOP’s internal investigation report atop a picture of the Iowa Statehouse.

Perhaps even worse, GOP leaders found to be at fault have refused to accept responsibility — not only for their own actions, which led to the lawsuit and taxpayer expense, but for the toxic culture that has been allowed to fester, negatively impact state government and endanger the health of state workers.

Testimony in the wrongful termination suit exposed taxpayers to the grim reality that “locker room talk” is prevalent at the Statehouse, and comments regarding the bodies of female workers, regardless of age, went unchecked.

The GOP’s follow-up internal investigation, the results of which were reluctantly released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, raises yet more unanswered concerns. Staff members — adults working at the Statehouse — fear that reporting incidents of sexual or other harassment could serve as a barrier to promotion or cost their jobs.

According to the 2018 page application packet, “serving as a page in a professional working environment will contribute to the participant’s confidence and self-esteem.” Unfortunately, the workplace described in court testimony and the GOP investigation lacks the professional decorum necessary to meet such noble goals.

We know, for instance, that snide remarks about the physical appearance of female staff members and teenage pages were previously discussed. According to the GOP’s internal report, “many” staff members reported bad behavior taking place on the Senate floor. That would be the same Senate floor where general assignment pages respond to lawmakers’ requests and well pages work during debate.

We know that legislative debate on breast cancer screenings devolved to “sexually suggestive comments” about dense breast tissue, and that “many” Senate Republican caucus staff members reported “senators making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences.”

Anderson testified that the Statehouse has become a “locker room” where jokes about sex and race were normalized. Staff members were summoned to windows for “hot chick reports” so they could observe the bodies of women walking by. One especially troublesome staffer, who leadership allowed to resign weeks following the court verdict, regularly referred to women, especially his soon-to-be ex-wife, with a shockingly vile vulgarity.

State documentation indicates that teenagers selected as pages will “learn the inside workings of government and lawmaking.” Given our most recent glimpses into how the sausage is made, do we really want lightly supervised young people immersed into this workplace culture?

If this were any other workplace, news headlines would offer stark warnings and psychologists would recite the physical and mental changes teens may exhibit when they’ve been exposed to harassing and abusive behavior — weight gain or loss, unhealthy eating patterns, persistent sadness or lack of energy, changes in sleep, withdrawing from normal activities, anxiety, failing grades, changes in self-care and appearance, self-harming behaviors, suicidal thoughts and drinking or drug use.

If this were any other workplace, lawmakers would be beating their fists on podiums, demanding assurances and changes. No doubt the fact that lawmakers themselves are key ingredients of this toxic stew makes such adamant protestations difficult.

Mary Kramer, a former Republican lawmaker and U.S. ambassador with a professional background in human resources, has been brought in as an unpaid adviser, and expects to deliver a list of recommendations to GOP leadership before the session begins. More power to her. Recent history offers no assurances that those recommendations will be adopted and implemented by current leadership, which has done more to protect the accused than to comfort the afflicted.

Pages already have been selected for the 2018 legislative session, and the state should make good on its monetary commitment to them. These high school students should not, however, be allowed to report for work unless and until real changes are made to protect their safety.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Dec. 3, 2017.