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Texas Legislature Enacts Sexual Harassment Policies: Time for Change

This year, prior to the very recent barrage of local and national media coverage regarding reports of sexual assault and harassment, Texas lawmakers created policies empowering sexual assault victims and witnesses of such behavior at institutions of higher learning.

During the 85th legislative session several laws were passed with the intent and design to make it easier for victims and those with knowledge to report incidents.

Senate Bill 968 passed in the Texas Senate in a 30-0 vote, and with amendments passed in the House by a 124 to 12 vote. The new laws found in the Texas Education Code, effective September 1, allow students and employees to electronically and anonymously report sexual harassment and assaults to their universities.

Senate Bill 969 granted amnesty to students who report a sexual assault, even if they were violating other laws, such as underage drinking, themselves. Official policies must be created, freshman must attend orientation on the topic, and institutions of higher learning must have public awareness campaigns, offer counseling, and allow victims to drop classes without penalty. Beginning January 1, 2018, an electronic method to anonymously report sexual assault, harassment, dating violence or stalking is required by law. These changes will hopefully bring this topic out of the dark.

In addition, complaints of harassment prompted Texas lawmakers to attempt to police themselves with new sexual harassment policies for elected officials, staff and interns at the state capital. Texas House Administration Committee approved an updated sexual harassment policy on December 1 that gives examples of harassment, offers guidance for internal and external complaint processes, and gives counseling information. Follow the link to their website and you may notice something about the composition of the committee; it is only 18% female, however only 19% of the House consists of women. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as head of the Texas Senate, charged Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to do the same in the Senate, of which 35% are women.

The updated policy offers multiple ways to report a complaint, including to the manager of the House Payroll/Personnel Department, the Civil Rights Division of the Texas Workforce Commission or the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Confidentiality will be upheld for victims; witnesses and others working in the House are expected to maintain confidentiality.

The new policy defines sexual harassment as an “unwelcome sexual advance, a request for a sexual favor, or any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” The definition includes examples such as using the sexual advances as leverage against someone’s job. The policy requires all to take sexual harassment training within 30 days of joining the House and then every two years. For current members and staff, training must be completed by the end of January 2018.

The committee will handle any complaints of sexual harassment against any elected representatives, while the House’s Payroll/Personnel Department will handle complaints against an employee or intern.

Sexual harassment policies in Texas state government historically have relied on officials with little incentive or authority to enforce them, particularly in cases of harassment by lawmakers. Unfortunately, this is like the fox protecting the henhouse as elected officials truly only answer to the public that voted for them, and certainly not to each other.

There is hope for the future though. Considering the changes happening across the country in the private and public-sector, Texas cities, counties, and employers must take steps to evaluate policies and procedures. It is time for a change.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our government law practice can be found here.

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