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Lawmakers pause session for anti-harassment training

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The Minnesota House meets during the final week of the legislative session.
The Minnesota House meets during the final week of the 2017 legislative session on Monday, May 15, 2017 inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Updated: 11:06 a.m. | Posted: 4:00 a.m.

Minnesota House members were ready to file into a room Wednesday for a private, daylong training session designed to ensure they are all aware of expectations about implicit bias, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Attendance is a must.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he'll station staff at the committee room doors — not only to keep reporters and others out, but to keep legislators in.

"I've told members that if you leave for more than 10 minutes, we're going to mark you absent," said Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

And being absent will result in a type of public shaming — removal from all committee assignments. A House spokeswoman said that all members arrived Wednesday morning at the training, which was expected to continue into the afternoon.

"Members can't come in, check in and run up to their office for a 45-minute coffee break," he said. "This is going to be something we are going to do all together as a team whether we think we need it or not. And the reality is the vast majority of members probably don't need it."

Senators are also under orders to attend new training sessions, although some of those have already occurred.

It is being taken so seriously because concerns over sexual harassment have already hit home. The Legislature convened this week with two new members to replace a pair of lawmakers — Republican Rep. Tony Cornish and DFL Sen. Dan Schoen — who resigned after allegations of harassment surfaced last November.

Attorney Linda Holstein will lead the session on harassment and discrimination. She's been practicing employment law in Minneapolis for more than 30 years.

She said the onset of the #MeToo movement has caused a sea change, in the political world and beyond.

"It used to be that you trained executives (and) employee supervisors in order to protect the company and educate managers," Holstein said. "Today, training must and does focus on encouraging reporting and stopping sexual harassment."

Holstein said she'll start the House training by going through the Legislature's policy for recognizing and reporting sexual harassment. It has been on the books since the 1990s and is seldom invoked.

Holstein says she'd be surprised if lawmakers call out their colleagues during the training session.

But, she added, "It is entirely conceivable that accusations may arise — and reporting is a better word for what we're talking about here — after this training session."

Some lawmakers haven't been through a harassment training since joining the Legislature many years ago. In the Senate, the expectation is that lawmakers got a refresher every five years.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said anybody who has fallen behind will be required to catch up immediately.

"There was at least one member that didn't want to go because that person had sexual harassment training every year at the place where they worked. But they are going," he said. "Everybody will go."

Gazelka said he'd like to change Senate requirements so training becomes more regular.

Legislative committees also plan to consider updates to harassment standards and the underlying process for investigating complaints.

DFL Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul and Republican Rep. Marion O'Neill of Maple Lake said they will pursue a change they say provides a clearer pathway for victims while extending due process to the accused. That measure was referred Tuesday to a new House subcommittee on workplace safety.

For the executive branch, Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking approval for a centralized state office to deal with harassment complaints. He has said that will bring more consistency in handling those complaints and meting out punishment.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said now is the time to re-examine workplace protections for the private sector, too. She said it's too difficult for harassment victims to seek redress in court.

"The standard that has been interpreted is so high that you could list a series of egregious acts and still not get the chance to put that in front of a jury" Hortman said.

Without knowing exactly what Hortman has in mind, Laura Bordelon of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said lawmakers should be careful about diving too far into how businesses handle these matters. She says most companies have well-established training and reporting programs.

"They have had them in place for decades," Bordelon, the chamber's senior vice president for advocacy, said. "So, Minnesota businesses are well ahead of the curve on these issues."