Lawmakers attend first `sensitivity training' class

They are told of dangers of sexual harassment

January 20, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland General Assembly took one more step away from its fraternity house past yesterday as members began "sensitivity training" to help them avoid charges of sexual harassment.

The program marks the first time the Assembly has launched a comprehensive effort to educate members on the pitfalls of improper sexual behavior in the workplace -- especially when it concerns legislative staff.

"This is important because you are considered employers," Erroll D. Brown, an instructor at Anne Arundel Community College, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary committees. Other committees are slated to attend sessions.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. started the program because of a suggestion by the Assembly's women's caucus. Miller added, "We're approaching a new millennium, and society's views and ideas change in terms of what's proper."

Not entirely, perhaps. When Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. announced the training on the House floor yesterday, a murmur of laughter swept through the chamber.

Most members of the two committees appeared to take the subject seriously as instructors Brown and Terri D. Wilson gave their presentation.

"It does not matter whether the person rejects the behavior," Brown warned, saying consent might not be a defense if one person holds power over the other.

Brown displayed a picture of a well-built man. If you display a photograph in your office of your "significant other" in a bathing suit, is that harassment?

"I think that's an attractive photograph of a guy who is in good shape," said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat and staunch civil libertarian. "Not appropriate," countered Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County minister.

Brown asked whether brushing up against another individual in an elevator, even once, constitutes harassment. Yes, piped up Del. Pauline H. Menes. "One time is plenty," she said.

Menes, a Prince George's Democrat, said the training sessions show the Assembly has come a long way since she was at the center of a celebrated incident in 1972. Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe ridiculed women legislators' demand for a members-only bathroom of their own by naming Menes chairman of the Ladies' Restroom Committee.

Menes said a sensitivity session would have been inconceivable then. "There was no recognition among the masculine community that anything a man did in terms of verbal or even physical action is improper," she said.

In urging the sessions, female legislators noted a 1993 incident in which Del. John S. Arnick used vulgar terms in conversation with a woman lobbyist. It cost him a judgeship, though he later returned to the House of Delegates.

In Annapolis

Highlights in Annapolis today:

Senate convenes at 10 a.m., Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets at 10 a.m., House chamber.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening sworn in for second term. Noon, Senate chamber.

Inaugural address, 12: 30 p.m., State House steps.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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