Lawmakers begin sexual harassment prevention courses

Posted 4:30 p.m. | Updated at 5:30 p.m.

A new round of training aimed at preventing sexual harassment began Tuesday at the Minnesota Capitol, with the expectation that most lawmakers and many staff will go through a course before the next session gets too far along.

The first course was attended by Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, staff members and others. At least two more will be offered in the Senate prior to the 2018 session that starts in February. Every member of Bakk's caucus will be expected to attend the training.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa says training will be paramount for Republican senators who haven't had it in the last five years.

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"For the legislators, they are elected officials, we can say you must take it. If they decide not to take it we can't fire them. But there are some other consequences we can and will do," Gazelka said. "For staff, it's a different issue. If they don't take it they're not going to work in the Senate."

He didn't lay out what consequences await lawmakers who refuse to attend a training.

Meanwhile, all 134 House members will get mandatory training next year.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said there is more to be done beyond training. She said heightened concerns about sexual harassment should lead to a bipartisan response by lawmakers next year.

Hortman said the Legislature should update its policies for dealing with harassment so members, staff and other Capitol professionals feel more comfortable reporting complaints. But she also wants lawmakers to review state laws dealing with workplace protections in general in Minnesota.

"I would say my biggest hope going into the 2018 session for real bipartisan work is on this issue," Hortman said. "Clearly, we have figured out that there is a problem in the atmosphere in the country with regard to sexual harassment."

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL- St. Paul Park, resigned after multiple allegations were made against them, some of which they denied. Special elections to replace them are scheduled for Feb. 12.

Bakk, Gazelka and House Speaker Kurt Daudt said they weren't aware of any complaints against other members that had been made to the Legislature's human resources departments. Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said one complaint against a staff member was made and dealt with; he didn't provide other details except to say there were no payouts or lawsuits that resulted.

"I have been very strong and very stern that we will have a zero tolerance policy in the House for sexual harassment," Daudt told reporters.

MPR News reported earlier Tuesday that there was a situation involving a House Democratic member made between 2013 and 2015. The member, who is reportedly no longer in office, was directed to undergo training. Few other details have emerged. Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, led the House DFL at the time and said he was restricted by personnel policy from saying more.

Daudt said it was "alarming and concerning" that the complaint didn't appear to have been forwarded to human resources officials as House policy requires of caucus leaders.

Thissen responded Tuesday that DFL caucus officials "did work through HR" and consulted with the office about how to handle the situation.