State investigated 52 harassment claims since 2014

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MONTPELIER — The state has investigated more than 50 claims of sexual harassment reported by state employees since 2014, according to the Vermont Department of Human Resources.

In the wake of sexual harassment allegations across the country, the Scott administration is requiring all employees in the state's executive branch to participate in training aimed at preventing sexual harassment.

DHR data shows that the state has investigated 52 allegations of sexual harassment brought by state employees over the last four years.

The cases resulted in disciplinary action taken in two cases in 2016 and two cases in 2017. (Penalties can range from a reprimand to dismissal.)

So far this year, there have been investigations into 10 complaints, the same number as 2016, according to officials. The number of complaints spiked in 2015 to 27, of which 14 involved the Department of Corrections.

There were no complaints of sexual harassment that were not investigated, officials said.

"All sexual harassment complaints received by DHR are investigated," said Matthew DiBella, staff attorney for DHR.

Gov. Phil Scott directed the state to review all sexual harassment policies currently in place in light of a surge in national dialogue about sexual misconduct, particularly in the workplace.

The policies were determined to be "current and in line with best practices," according to statement issued Friday. However, DHR did recommend improving training requirements to prevent workplace misconduct.

Revelations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had a decades-long pattern of subjecting women to unwanted sexual behavior sparked a movement of women coming forward about harassment. The revelations have reverberated from the halls of Congress, to the Vermont Statehouse and beyond.

"What we've seen and heard about the prevalence of harassment and assault from many across the country is disappointing, and it is clear we must all take a strong stand against this abuse," Scott said in a statement.

The directive issued Friday requires state employees to participate in a sexual harassment prevention course through the Center for Achievement in Public Service. DHR has already scheduled 400 trainings across the state, according to DHR Commissioner Beth Fastiggi.

Fastiggi said in an interview Friday that the state's policies for reviewing sexual misconduct claims are sound.

"We work really hard to make sure any complaint is addressed and if it's substantiated then we address that accordingly," Fastiggi said.

Fastiggi said she anticipates that the state could see an increase in reports of workplace misconduct with the implementation of the new training program, because more people may come forward.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees' Association, applauded the Scott administration's move to step up training.

"I do believe that any emphasis on increased training, increased awareness of this issue is probably beneficial because sexual harassment is about the abuse of power mostly," Howard said.

However, he said the state's policies on sexual harassment must be "aggressively enforced."

Howard said he is not aware of many instances of union members reporting workplace misconduct. However, he argued that the union provides a level of support for employees with sexual harassment complaints.

"They can harass you in a million different ways but at least you have some place to go if they retaliate because you've been speaking up about the way you've been treated," Howard said.

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