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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus creates work group to combat sexual harassment in the Legislature

In December, the House updated its sexual harassment policy after reports from The Texas Tribune and The Daily Beast put a spotlight on the widespread misconduct.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, gives a lunchtime speech to the Greater Austin Crime Commission on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. 

Months after reports detailed a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the state Capitol, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Wednesday announced another measure to address the issue.

Straus, a Republican who will retire early next year, created a work group to recommend additional steps to "prevent and eradicate" misconduct in the Legislature. The appointment of the group comes months after the House updated its sexual harassment policy following reports from The Texas Tribune detailing flaws in the former policy, which often left victims to fend for themselves. The Daily Beast had previously detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature.

"This is the next step in our effort to make sure that sexual harassment is not tolerated at the Texas Capitol," Straus said in a news release.

In a news release, Straus said the group will review existing policies and research best practices from other states to ensure a safe environment. The co-chairs of the new group are state Reps. Linda Koop, R-Dallas, and Donna Howard, D-Austin. Other members are: state Reps. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson; Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park; Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; Lina Ortega, D-El Paso; Abel Herrero, D-Robstown; Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress; Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston; and Gene Wu, D-Houston.

The House revised its policy in December to require all House employees and staff to undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. House leaders cannot require lawmakers to complete the training, but all current lawmakers took the online course this year.

After some House lawmakers raised concerns that the previous policy was insufficient, the policy was also updated to offer more details on the actions that could constitute sexual harassment, strengthened protections against retaliation and clarified the process for reporting inappropriate behavior.

Questions still remain about how members, who ultimately answer to voters back home, could be disciplined if they are found to have sexually harassed someone. House officials have said they can "address and discipline employees," but have less control over disciplinary actions for elected officials when it comes to sexual harassment.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to the issue by asking Senate Administration Committee chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham, to review the chamber’s procedures. Shortly after, specific allegations against two state senators were reported by The Daily Beast.

Kolhorst’s committee met in December to discuss the chamber’s policy but changes to the policy have yet to be announced.

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