There are 32 new lawmakers, including 28 in the state House, this year Michael Schwab, Nashville Tennessean
For the second time in as many years, members of the state House of Representatives received in-person training Thursday aimed to combat sexual harassment.
This time, unlike last year’s training, which featured lawmakers making jokes about harassment, lawmakers gathered for the session in the House chamber.
The 30-minute training, led by Melanie Koewler, who works in the Office of General Counsel under the Tennessee Department of Human Resources, provided lawmakers with an overview of what could be considered various forms of harassment.
Koewler spoke from the front of the House while slides played on overhead screens.
During the presentation, several lawmakers could be seen looking at their phones, with at least one member on a call, while others quietly chatted. No lawmakers asked questions during or after the presentation, unlike last year’s training.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, praised his colleagues for “listening” and being “in their seat” during the training.
“Unfortunately, I did see one person on the phone,” Lamberth said, referencing Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville.
But Lamberth rejected the notion that lawmakers looking at their phone during the presentation were not taking the training seriously.
“That’s just today’s culture,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of our members I think learned from that harassment training.”
Lamberth said the training was a part of an effort to send a message that harassment would not be tolerated.
House lawmakers were the only ones to take the in-person harassment training on Thursday. The Senate is planning to require its members to watch a video instead.
Previous misconduct from representatives
The harassment training was instituted more than a year after former Rep. Jeremy Durham was expelled from the House.
His ouster came after a 2016 Tennessean investigation prompted an attorney general report that found Durham engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with at least 22 women.
Since then, lawmakers updated their sexual harassment policy, which requires anyone with personal knowledge of inappropriate conduct to report it or face the possibility of being held in violation of the policy.
The policy allows anyone — including lawmakers, members of the public, lobbyists and staff members — to file a complaint.
Since Durham’s expulsion, the House has had two other members face allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.
In 2017, then-Rep. Mark Lovell, R-Eads, was accused of inappropriately touching a woman. Lovell abruptly resigned and denied any wrongdoing, but a House committee later found he violated the legislature’s sexual harassment policy.
Last year, Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, faced misconduct allegations after WSMV reported that three women said he sexually assaulted them when they were teenagers in the 1980s. Byrd, their basketball coach at Wayne County High School at the time, has denied any wrongdoing, despite having apologized to one of the women in a phone call she recorded, according to the WSMV report.
Last year, the chamber’s training was led by the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. During that training, former Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, who is set to join Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s cabinet, said women need to be mindful of the possibility of harassment if they wear provocative clothing.
Rogers was one of two lawmakers to vote against Durham’s expulsion.
The House held its sexual harassment training after it listened to Doug Himes, an attorney with the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, provide a separate ethics training to lawmakers.
Himes once again reminded members that they must disclose any trips they take paid for by outside interests. He also noted that lawmakers are not supposed to use campaign funds on days they receive per diems — their daily allowance for work as a lawmaker.
Tennessee lawmakers have repeatedly been warned against such practice but have continued to do it.
Natalie Allison contributed to this report.
Reach Joel Ebert at [email protected] or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.
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