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North Dakota legislators want updated sexual harassment policy

North Dakota Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, discusses the Legislature's sexual harassment policy Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers called for an updated sexual harassment policy that includes a process for reporting such behavior Wednesday, Dec. 6.

The Legislature's current two-paragraph policy says sexual harassment "in any manner" won't be tolerated. Its definition includes "verbal abuse" and "physical touching" of a sexual nature, as well as any threat that somebody's job will be affected by rejecting sexual advances.

Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, advocated for more formalized approach to reporting, investigating and disciplining sexual harassment. The Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee discussion came amid a shower of accusations against political, entertainment and media figures.

"I think this is a golden opportunity for us to provide leadership and set the standards," Hogan said. "I don't even know if people would know who to report to."

Legislative Council Director Jim Smith said they haven't received any complaints of sexual harassment, but they "wouldn't necessarily be the ones that would receive them" under current policy.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he was "not aware of anybody walking into my office, or anybody's office saying, 'I've been harassed by so-and-so.' But that doesn't mean it hasn't happened." Carlson, the committee's chairman, said it was "very important" to review the legislative policy.

But Hogan said she was “aware of three or four situations where women have come to me being uncomfortable with how they’ve been treated,” including a lobbyist, a secretary and an intern. She said the alleged offenders included a lobbyist and legislators, but she declined to say if those lawmakers are still serving.

"One incident was where a man hugged her and made her very uncomfortable, one was where comments were made," Hogan said. "They didn't want to report."

John Bjornson, Legislative Council's legal division director, said they would review other states' policies and bring ideas for review at a future meeting.

Its unclear how prevalent sexual harassment is across state government. Becky Sicble, interim director of the Human Resource Management Services Division of the Office of Management and Budget, couldn't provide a number of claims for all agencies.

"Each agency has operated really as its own entity," she said. "If an employee were to report a situation had occurred, it would be that agency's responsibility to ensure that the claim is properly investigated and then the actions required are taken."

The Legislature passed a law in 2015 requiring each state agency, department and institution to adopt a policy on employee harassment, including sexual harassment. If an entity doesn't adopt a policy, it's subject to the HRMS guidelines.

Janelle Moos, executive director of CAWS North Dakota, a nonprofit organization representing domestic violence and sexual assault crisis intervention centers, commended lawmakers for taking proactive steps on the issue. A registered lobbyist in North Dakota, she was unaware of specific incidents of sexual harassment at the Capitol but noted it's often "drastically underreported."

"People don't want to come forward to report that in fear of what it might do," Moos said. "They're often subjected to a tremendous amount of backlash."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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