Senate briefed on updated sexual harassment policies

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, stands outside the courthouse. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Members of the Vermont Senate participated in sexual harassment training under new rules that leaders established after former Sen. Norm McAllister was accused of criminal sexual assault.

They were also required for the first time to fill out a form disclosing income sources that pay them more than $10,000 per year; any businesses they own or have a controlling interest in; and any board, commission, and associations they are affiliated with.

The new sexual harassment rules clarify the role of the Senate’s internal Sexual Harassment Panel, currently chaired by Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, to take confidential complaints from members of the senate, staff of the senate, and their interns.

The panel is not allowed to disclose the name of the person who made the complaint, the name of the person who is the subject of the complaint, or the fact that they are investigating a complaint, Baruth said.

Phil Baruth
Sen. Philip Baruth. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

The rules also require that interns fill out a one-page registration form with their address and emergency contact information. They are also provided with a two-page copy of the Senate’s sexual harassment policy and must sign at the bottom saying they have received it.

The registration for interns was first announced after senators found out that one of McAllister’s accusers worked for him as an intern at the Statehouse. The criminal charges in that case were later dropped by the state. The Franklin County Republican lost his bid for re-election last fall.

McAllister’s second trial, for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman who worked for him in Franklin County, is scheduled for Thursday.

Additionally, the panel can now take complaints during an entire legislative biennium, even during the summer after the whole Senate has adjourned.

Baruth explained the logic behind having interns register.

“Anybody who comes to the Statehouse in (a senator’s) name needs to be registered, and it’s their responsibility,” Baruth said. “The senator can be sanctioned if they don’t do that, so that’s to protect the safety of the kids and also so that we know who’s in the building.”

“In the course of filling out that form they are then directed to our codes on sexual harassment to raise their awareness immediately before they’re in the building and interacting,” he said. “That’s all by way of protecting interns—and pages, who also get sexual harassment training.”

Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said the definition of what makes someone an intern is still hazy. He said it is still not clear whether a person a senator hires with his or her own money to help out with tasks would be considered an “intern” subject to the registration rules.

“It was agreed (during the training) that the definitions in (the sexual harassment rules) failed to make that distinction between those two types and that that was something yet to be worked on and welcomed,” MacDonald said.

Down the hall, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, brought in consultant Kerin Stackpole from a Burlington law firm to do the chamber’s sexual harassment training.

Sexual harassment training for House members usually happens at some point during the first month, according to Johnson’s aide, Katherine Levasseur, but the speaker decided to hold the training in the first week because of the importance of the issue.

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