After weeks of dispute over how to reform the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy, the House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday that establishes new training requirements.
By Deanna Davison for Capital News Service
The bill by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, would require anti-sexual harassment training to be completed each year by General Assembly members and full-time legislative staff.
A bill by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, that would have included all forms of workplace harassment was killed in committee Friday. Watts’ HB 1053 also called for new mechanisms for victims of harassment to file complaints, aiming to make the process more streamlined.
HB 371 passed 88-10. Watts and nine other Democrats voted in opposition; two House members did not vote.
“I see both sides of the aisle trying to get to the same place, just through different vehicles,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said on the House floor. “Our intention is to continue to take this issue very seriously, as we always have. Especially in this day and age, when we see women feel safe to talk about instances where they have been harassed, or manipulated, or harmed, we want to continue to encourage them to come forward.”
Watts, the longest-serving woman in the House, said in a telephone conference call with reporters later that the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“The bill specifies training, but it has no guidelines for what should be part of it,” said Watts, the longest-serving woman in the House. “Republicans say to trust the system. Trusting the system got us where we are today.”
In debate on Wednesday, Robinson defended the legislation’s details.
“It took me about 45 minutes to read through it,” Robinson said, referring to the training course. “And every one of the sections includes what needs to be done if there’s a problem.”
Gilbert said Republicans are committed to addressing the issue.
“We are going to continue to develop this program, if this bill passes. . .and demand a level of accountability that we would all expect,” Gilbert said.
A bill by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond — SB 796 — that requires sexual harassment training every two years has been referred to the Senate Rules committee.
Watts told reporters that the accounts of sexual misconduct survivors speak out during the #MeToo movement of the last few months as well as the growing number of women in politics has represented a major shift.
“We never had more than 19 women serving at any one time,” Watts said. “Now we have 28. #MeToo speaks to decades of women getting around situations, trying to preserve their professional career as well as their own moral integrity. It’s time to have a full and open discussion of protections that are needed to make sure these instances are properly handed and allow due process for all individuals involved.”
Watts said the General Assembly’s history with sexual harassment is “not without a major blemish,” referring to former Speaker of the House Vance Wilkins Jr. The Republican resigned his position in 2002 after allegations of sexually harassing two women and paying one of them a settlement of $100,000 to remain silent.
“This is not only a moral issue, but a policy in law,” Watts said. “We must use our power for good to be sure that whoever is doing this stops immediately.”