Some of the high profile sexual scandals in recent weeks have illustrated how the words people use to describe unwanted touching can be imprecise and confusing. Take the case of the woman who recently reported that President George H.W. Bush "sexually assaulted" her when he touched her rear end during a political photo shoot with his wife at his side. Was that an "assault," some ask, or sexual harassment or groping?

Ambiguous words confuse and undermine this important conversation, which must be crystal clear to help both potential victims and offenders understand the boundaries when it comes to touching others.

But there was nothing ambiguous when Oregon's top legislative lawyer and the human resources director sat down with Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse last year to discuss how he was touching his colleagues. They told the 66-year-old Roseburg lawmaker two senators didn't like how he hugged, touched thighs, kissed hands and leaned in too close. The officials told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that they were clear with Kruse that the women didn't want to be touched anymore and that he should stop.

And still, Kruse continued to put his hands on women.

The veteran lawmaker told The Oregonian/OregonLive's Fedor Zarkhin this past week that he was unsure of the line that separated bad behavior from his admitted, frequent touching. This changing culture, he went on, makes it hard to tell the difference.

For some people, that may be true. Many people have differing degrees of tolerance for touching and risque humor. And sometimes, people honestly cross the line at work without knowing they've being offensive. That's why clear, direct and honest conversations about boundaries are so necessary.

But that's entirely not the case for Kruse. Not after being warned so explicitly by legislative officials or by the several lawmakers who've come forward to say they'd told him he was out of line.

The state is responsible for providing a safe workplace. To make that clear, Senate President Peter Courtney wrote an impressive letter to Kruse admonishing, "Women in the Capitol do NOT want you touch them." He also punished Kruse for his blatant disregard of state laws as he's continued to smoke in the building and on the Capitol grounds after repeated warnings and fines. Courtney removed Kruse's office door that once hid his habit.

Roseburg Sen. Jeff Kruse has been repeatedly told to stop touching women, and recently admitted that he "forgot" and went back to his "normal ways."

Roseburg Sen. Jeff Kruse has been repeatedly told to stop touching women, and recently admitted that he "forgot" and went back to his "normal ways."

For the repeated offenses on both fronts, Courtney stripped Kruse of his committees, the assignments necessary for lawmakers to do their most important work. That unprecedented action makes clear there are consequences when warnings aren't heeded.

Yet this isn't the only case where people have felt uncomfortable at work in Salem. Lawmakers, lobbyists and others have shared personal stories over the past week making it clear that the culture in our state house allows for some amount of bad behavior.

That's exactly why Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek should review the Legislature's training on sexual harassment as Courtney told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that he intends to do. Courtney says that while the Legislature's biennial training has evolved, it likely should include more people within the Capitol, such as lobbyists. He also said the conversations could probably be more explicit in what's right and wrong. That's a good start.

Courtney and Kotek also should give a second look to the systems in place for lawmakers, lobbyists and other Capitol employees to report sexual harassment. The informal complaint process, which women used to address Kruse's touching, appears to have weaknesses in how it holds offenders accountable.

The formal complaint system is even more disturbing. For any employee, reporting sexual harassment is scary. Complainants risk retaliation, ruined work relationships and the emotional toll if their reports are ignored or doubted. In the Oregon Legislature, a formal complaint is investigated and a committee recommends action based on whether it's substantiated or not. But a third, disturbing option allows the committee to deem the complaint "frivolous or without merit" and then, to recommend a punishment for the complainant.

It's difficult to think of a better way to chill the process of reporting an issue that remains dishearteningly prevalent despite the many headlines over the years devoted to sexual harassment and violence perpetrated by Oregon's mayors, state lawmakers and congressional leaders.

Indeed, Courtney's letter admonishing Kruse was bold, yet those words were directed at Kruse. An equally bold move would be for Courtney to push the Senate's conduct committee to consider a formal censure of the lawmaker to send a clear message to all Oregon lawmakers and others in the Capitol that this behavior is not acceptable.

Courtney removed Kruse's office door so he could no longer break the rules where no one can see. Smoking is against the law and can permanently harm others.

So can sexual harassment. Courtney has a chance to blow the doors off a culture within the Capitol that's allowed people to ignore others' rights when they've asked that they not be touched. Or hugged. Or leaned into. Regardless of the intention.

— The Oregonian

 

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