Policies alone won't stop sexual harassment


The latest bipartisan issue facing the country is sexual harassment. And it goes beyond politics.

After the recent wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations reached U.S. Rep. John Conyers, an 88-year-old Democratic congressman who served the Detroit area for more than a half-century, Rep. Kathleen Rice said she had heard enough.

Rice, who represents New York’s 4th Congressional District, which covers much of Nassau County’s South Shore, called the allegations against Conyers credible, saying, “We needed to show that we would no longer allow ourselves or our colleagues to be held to a double standard.”

Claims against Conyers, who resigned last week, came in addition to those against Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who also said he would resign in the coming weeks, as well as Rep. Ruben Kihuen, a Nevada Democrat, and Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, neither of whom had surrendered their jobs as of press time.

“That’s the standard we expect in the media, in entertainment and throughout the private sector, and the standard for public servants should, if anything, be even higher,” Rice said. “That doesn’t mean that every politician who faces a single accusation should resign immediately. It means that if we believe the women, we should act accordingly.”

She also said she believed the women in all four cases, and even reportedly left a House Democratic Caucus meeting on Dec. 6, charging that her colleagues weren’t taking the allegations seriously enough.

Whether you believes the sexual harassment allegations against these men, or those lodged against Roy Moore — the Republican nominee in the Senate special election in Alabama that was set for Tuesday, as the Heralds were going to press — isn’t the point. It’s about where we go from here.

The past two months have also brought sexual harassment claims against some of America’s biggest household names outside of politics, including producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K., actor Kevin Spacey and NBC morning anchor Matt Lauer. With many alleged victims inspired to speak out, the question du jour around dinner tables and water coolers has become, “Who’s next?”

Earlier this month, Margalie Rodriguez, a Long Island lawyer who has worked for the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights for two decades, said the claims of other alleged victims gave her courage to share her own story. She alleged that Dr. Phillip Elliot, the county’s former executive director of minority affairs and now the deputy county executive for health and human services, consistently humiliated her with cruel sexual remarks.

The coverage of these sexual harassment claims will, we hope, serve as a wake-up call for people who have given a pass to such disgusting behavior, as well as for local municipalities, schools and businesses to review policies and procedures for handling such claims, and the consequences for those who are accused.

According to the New York State Department of Human Rights, sexual harassment in the form of a “hostile environment” consists of words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence that are of a sexual nature, or that are directed at an individual because of that person’s sex.

Sexual harassment also consists of any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone in the workplace that are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, cause discomfort or humiliation or interfere with the recipient’s job performance.

Many local municipalities, school districts and businesses have seemingly done a satisfactory job of drawing up strict policies on such actions, including procedures on how to report harassment. Though written policies and procedures and defined consequences are important when it comes to providing a moral standard for people, they cannot prevent harassment without the cooperation of people. Watching elected leaders resign their positions in disgrace and seeing actors, comedians and television personalities shamed in the national news will likely serve to deter some, or many, from engaging in sexual harassment in the future.

We hope, however, that people will act not out of fear, but with the understanding that treating our fellow humans with dignity and respect is simply the right thing to do.

Who to call

To file a sexual harassment complaint, call the New York State Division of Human Rights, at (718) 741-8400, or the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights, at (516) 571-3662.