Earlier this year, a female legislative staffer entered Room 4202 inside California’s state Capitol, a large space with tan paneling and green carpet. The staffer, who wants to remain anonymous, was there to attend sexual-harassment training along with “hundreds” of colleagues — including, she says, her harasser.
The woman said the presence of so many people during the training, especially the staffer who sexually harassed her, made the class uncomfortable.
“It was a joke,” she said.
Today at the Capitol, state lawmakers held a special hearing on sexual harassment — also in Room 4202. On the agenda was an overview of the Assembly’s sexual-harassment training classes. The staffer and another woman who used to work in the building, however, tell Capital Public Radio the training needs reforms. And a lawmaker echoes their concerns.
The staffer described several men at the training as “‘What if?’ guys,” who would ask a lot of hypothetical questions. Her harasser was one of them.
“‘Well, what if I do this? Is that sexual harassment? Well, what if I say that? Is that sexual harassment?'” the staffer recalled of the numerous questions by her harasser and other men. “‘What about this? What about that? I'm just being nice.'
"It was excessive,” she said.
After the training, the female legislative staffer says she approached the instructor. “Before I could get to her, here he comes!” the staffer recalled, explaining that the man who harassed her got between her and the instructor, and prevented her from asking questions.
When asked about the woman’s experience during training, state Sen. Toni Atkins responded that "it's clear that the training has to be revamped.”
“An incident where a victim is being trained and being prevented from asking a question, because the harasser is in the room, is clearly unacceptable. And the fact that stories are being shared almost every day now means that something isn't working,” Atkins said.
Atkins is a Democrat from San Diego and a former Assembly speaker. She added that she hopes this week's hearings at the Capitol result in solutions.
"I think we have an opportunity here, and we have a chance to seize it and really implement some change, and I'm looking forward to getting into this, however difficult and hard it may be. It's necessary," she said.
The staffer who attended training says her story of harassment is not unusual: unwanted and unsolicited comments by a co-worker that made her uncomfortable, yet continued even after repeated requests to stop.
She says her harasser was unavoidable inside the building. "There was no way I could work without being around him,” she said. His inappropriate comments included pet names, statements about her appearance, or suggestions of coffee or drinks, even "I missed you” messages, she said.
The staffer contended that, if the Capitol’s sexual harassment training actually worked, he would have stopped after she told him to the first time.
“Joke” was a word used by a different woman, who used to work in the building and who also wishes to remain anonymous.
“You can do all the training you want, but if you don’t actually do something when someone does something wrong — when you bring the complaint to light and you are the one who gets penalized by losing your job and the perv just gets moved along to another office — it’s a joke,” the woman said.
A spokesperson with the Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees and mediates harassment complaints, said in a statement that ending sexual harassment is going to take a “comprehensive effort.” which is why this week’s hearings are taking place.
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