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Texas leaders call for reviews of Capitol sexual harassment policies

Lawmakers in the Texas House and Senate called for a review of sexual harassment policies Tuesday following a Texas Tribune story detailing how current procedures offered little protection for victims.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas leaders are calling for a review of sexual harassment policies at the state Legislature following a Texas Tribune story detailing how current procedures offered little protection for victims.

Lawmakers in both chambers on Tuesday said they would look at how to improve the process for reporting sexual harassment at the Capitol. The push follows reports on a wide range of harassment at the Capitol, including degrading comments and gestures, groping and unwanted sexual advances, that regularly goes unchecked. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in response to Tribune questions regarding the Senate's sexual harassment policy, said through a spokesman Tuesday afternoon that he had asked Senate Administration Committee Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham, to review the chamber's procedures to "make sure they are current and effectively protect every state employee."

In the House, Speaker Joe Straus directed the chamber's Administration Committee and business office to review its sexual harassment policy and make improvements "where necessary," according to a Straus spokesman. Straus is also asking officials to implement sexual harassment training programs by the end of January. (The Senate already has a training program in place.)

Earlier in the day, state Rep. Linda Koop asked the state’s Republican leadership Tuesday to develop a new protocol to protect those working in the state Capitol, citing “disturbing accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct” by public officials in Washington, D.C., and Texas.

In her letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and House and Senate leaders, Koop, a Dallas Republican, raised concerns that legislative personnel were not “fully educated as to where to report misconduct or harassment.”

“These disturbing reports make me concerned for the safety of our Capitol staffers, interns, reporters, lobbyists and all those who work at the Capitol,” Koop wrote. “Many of our staff and interns are young people and may be particularly vulnerable to those in positions of power."

Though both chambers have had sexual harassment policies in place for two decades, not a single formal complaint of sexual harassment has been filed in either the House or Senate since at least 2011. Few of the employees interviewed by the Tribune even knew they could file a formal complaint. 

Others said they balked at doing so for fear that speaking out would lead to retaliation or career sabotage. The Capitol's policies rely on officials with little incentive or authority to enforce them — particularly in cases of harassment by lawmakers — leading to a culture that offers little support for victims, based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former staffers and lawmakers.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Koop said she decided to send the letter after reading The Texas Tribune's story on how rampant sexual harassment at the Capitol regularly goes unchecked. While she had never experienced sexual harassment herself in her two terms as a state representative, Koop said she had heard about it happening to others.

"I thought to myself when I read the article, these are our young people and we have very young staff, and we have interns who are 18, 19 years old, and they expect us to protect them and it’s our duty to protect them as elected officials and as adults to show them what appropriate behavior is," she said. 

Koop said since the letter became public this morning she had been hearing from fellow House lawmakers who wanted to help revise the Legislature's approach to sexual harassment. She pointed to a recent measure passed by the U.S. Senate as a possible model.

In response to concerns about sexual harassment at the Capitol, a spokeswoman for Abbott said the governor "believes that all state employees, especially and including those working in the Capitol, should hold themselves to the highest standards."

"The Governor will work with the legislature on any improvements that provide further protections and deliver the respect everyone deserves and that as a state we should demand," Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said in a statement.

Abbott later tweeted that "any form of sexual harassment at the Capitol is unacceptable" and that he would "work on remedies to end it."

Help us investigate sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol by confidentially sharing your experience with our reporters. You may contact our reporters directly, or if you're more comfortable contacting us anonymously, send an encrypted message to the Tribune with the messaging app Signal at (512) 745-2713.

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