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We Need to Make Sure Student Interns Are Not Being Mistreated in Statehouses

There's not been a sudden spike in sexual harassment within our state legislatures; this has been going on for decades. And professors who help send students to statehouse internships need to be mindful of that fact.
The Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, Colorado.

The Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, Colorado.

A recent survey of 500 people working in and around Colorado's state legislature found that roughly a third had seen or experienced some form of sexual harassment, but almost none had reported it. This is a disturbing and striking finding, and it raises particular questions for professors who, like me, send students to these places as interns.

Sexual harassment has been a subject of particular focus during the 2018 session of Colorado's general assembly, and not just because of the ongoing campaign of the #MeToo movement. Just last month, the legislature voted to expel state Representative Steve Lebsock (D-Thornton), its first expulsion in more than a century. Several of Lebsock's colleagues in the statehouse had publicly accused him of sexual harassment. He additionally threatened to retaliate against his accusers to the point that some legislators were wearing bulletproof vests to the capitol building during expulsion proceedings. Speaker of the House of Representatives Crisanta Duran (D-Denver) has been criticized for not taking earlier complaints about Lebsock more seriously. The legislature is apparently investigating harassment complaints against several other of its members.

This all sounds pretty serious. Why would I expect it to be worse in other locations? Because the conditions at Colorado's statehouse actually work to mitigate sexual harassment.

For one thing, Colorado has historically had one of the largest percentages of female legislators of all the nation's state legislatures. Thirty-eight of its 100 legislators are women, down from 42 in the previous session. This is roughly twice the percentage of women in the current United States Congress. Of the 22 leaders across both statehouse chambers and parties, fully half are women. If women are going to have a voice in the governance of any American legislature, it should be in this one.

Second, the National Conference of State Legislatures has issued recommendations for how statehouses should work to address sexual harassment. These recommendations include clear definitions of sexual harassment, policies that apply uniformly to legislators, staff, and non-employees, a clear and diverse range of places victims can report harassment, an ability to bring in outside investigators, and so forth. Colorado is actually one of the NCSL's highlighted examples; they're better than most.

Third, unlike most state capitol buildings, Colorado's is located within the state's main population center. The vast majority of legislators live within driving distance of the statehouse and thus go home every night. At least theoretically, that mitigates some of the less savory behavior that occurs in places like Albany, Springfield, and Sacramento, when legislators are far from their families and a good many reporters.

All this is to say that if such horrors are happening in Denver, they're probably happening in most statehouses.

This raises important questions and concerns for professors who supervise internships in state legislatures. An internship in a state legislature can be an incredibly rewarding experience; students are often given far more responsibility and interesting assignments than they would be in the U.S. Congress, which has a much larger paid staff and more competition for internships. I very much want my students to have access to this experience, especially if they're considering a career in public service. I also very much do not want to put them into harm's way.

Several universities in state capitals have developed well-regimented internship programs that include serious discussions and training about what students should do in response to sexual harassment and how to avoid putting students in this position to begin with. I've been chatting with a number of colleagues across the country on this topic who've been working on this far longer than I have, with the aim of developing some discipline-wide guidelines for political science professors supervising political internships.

As this process unfolds, it's important to remember that there's not been a sudden spike in sexual harassment within our state legislatures; this has been going on for decades. What's new is that it's being reported and taken seriously, while it was once considered something young women (mostly) just had to learn to endure in their chosen career, even while it was driving many of them away from that career. As these reports come to light, the problem is going to look worse and worse. But reporting it, and taking it seriously, is what's going to have to happen if the situation's going to improve.

Legislators themselves and their elected leaders are the ones primarily charged with creating a safe and productive working environment in capitol buildings. But if universities and professors are going to be sending students there, telling them the experience is good for them academically and professionally, and giving them course credit and a grade for it, we bear responsibility for their experiences there as well.