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‘Dress code’ suggestion takes spotlight as House looks to new rules against sexual harassment

  

St. Louis — When some state lawmakers responded to proposed framework of a new code-of-conduct governing House members and their interns and staff with the suggestion of a mandatory dress code, the push for a new sexual harassment policy in the Capitol was temporarily derailed.

The suggestion that the House adopt a mandatory dress code for all members, interns and staff was not in the formal framework for a new policy that Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, sent out to members seeking feedback. Engler was tasked with chairing an interim committee to examine and make changes to the House’s policy regarding conduct, sexual harassment and their interns when House Speaker John Diehl, a married Republican, resign amidst revelations that he exchanged sexually charged text messages with a 19-year-old college intern.

New House Speaker Todd Richardson told reporters that Engler would be leading the new effort to refine internal policies and procedures hours before he was even formally elected to the post. Engler sent an email to his fellow House Republicans with his framework for a new policy. When several of the recipients responded that a dress code should be part of the framework, some reacted negatively.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill penned a letter, which she made public, to Rep. Bill Kidd, a Republican who supported an “intern dress code.”

“I ask that you clarify or withdraw your suggestion of a dress code for interns as a means of combatting sexual harassment — and that you redouble your efforts to confront the real and systemic causes of such behavior,” the Democratic senator wrote.

Backlash was so swift against the informal suggestion that Richardson released a statement hours after the story broke clarifying that no new dress code was in the interim committee’s recommendations or was currently being written.

“The members who were tasked with reviewing the intern policy for the House did an outstanding job in developing a list of recommendations that I believe are a step toward improving the culture at the state Capitol,” Richardson wrote. “The legislature should be a safe place for learning about government and the legislative process, and my goal is to ensure that safety. The working group did not recommend, and the House will not be implementing, changes to the dress code as the House already has in place a code that applies to all members, staff and interns equally. Our efforts have been, and remain, focused on improving the environment for interns to learn and gain experience here in the General Assembly.”

Among the proposals found in Engler’s framework: minimum GPA and credit hour requirements for prospective interns, establishment of a neutral third-part “intern ombudsman” to hear complaints, adoption of a formal code of ethics for all membes, and mandatory sexual harassment training and interviewing with members and interns to “reinforce open lines of communication and reduce barriers to reporting of unacceptable behavior.”

Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat, submitted a detailed response to Engler’s framework that he also sent to reporters. Kendrick said the focus should be on the “power dynamic” between House members and their interns and staff, and that his primary concern was outlining a “workplace relationship” policy, which was lacking in the House.

Kendrick’s proposal permits relationships between members and staff, provided neither is in a supervisory position to the other — supervisors engaged in amorous relationships with staff must immediately report it so the potential conflict of interest may be resolved. The disclosure includes a written agreement that requires signatures from both parties; a mechanism that Kendrick says will help to root out members engaged in bad behavior.

“If someone is in one of those relationships and doesn’t disclose it and it ultimately comes out, then it’s not only about the relationship, but the cover up as well,” Kendrick said.

In his policy, relationships with staff are permissible under appropriate circumstances, but relationships with interns are strictly forbidden.

“Interns are unpaid volunteers there for an educational opportunity,” Kendrick said. “We should do all we can to protect interns and make sure the focus remains on education. We should never infer that the problems or the remedies are the student’s behavior.”

Engler is hoping to circulate the policy among all Democrats in the House soon to meet his goal of having a proposed revision to House policies available to the public by the scheduled veto session on September 16.