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Backlash prompts Missouri House speaker to nix dress code change for Capitol interns

Richardson enters the House Lounge for an end-of-session press conference on Friday.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Todd Richardson has put the kibosh on changing the intern dress code of the Missouri House.

(Updated 3 p.m. Wed., Aug. 19, with proposals from state House Minority Whip John Rizzo)

As lawmakers continue to mull over changes to the Missouri Capitol’s intern program, the speaker of the Missouri House is putting the kibosh on changes to the chamber’s dress code.

It’s a proposal that sparked an intense backlash from some elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Meanwhile, state House Minority Whip John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, is proposing that the House task force charged into looking the intern issue be transformed into an "interim committee'' charged with looking into the broader issue of "sexual harassment in the Missouri Capitol.

Rizzo also is calling for a public hearing that would feature testimony from former interns.

Rizzo made public on Wednesday a letter outlining his suggestions that he has sent to Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

The proposals are, in part, in response to a story this week in The Kansas City Star. The newspaper reported  that lawmakers are considering alterations to the intern program, including requiring a minimum number of college credit hours and a certain GPA for participation, mandatory training for interns and supervisors, and the creation of an ombudsman program. The paper then reported that state Reps. Bill Kidd, R-Independence, and Nick King, R-Liberty, had suggested a dress code for interns. (That idea was not part of a draft list of suggested changes to the intern program.)

That idea received a harshly negative reaction both in official statements and on social media. Besides the fact that there’s already a dress code for Missouri lawmakers and staff, some – including McCaskill – felt it was an example of “victim blaming.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has promised to help get a contribution limit measure on next year's ballot. But other Democratic officials have promised such a move and haven't delivered.
Credit Courtesy of Claire McCaskill's Flickr
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, blasted the idea of changes to the intern dress code.

“Such a recommendation reeks of a desire to avoid holding fully accountable those who would prey upon young women and men seeking to begin honorable careers in public service,” McCaskill said in a letter to Kidd and King. “Is your recommendation meant to suggest that the ability of adult men and women who have been elected to govern the state of Missouri to control themselves is contingent on the attire of the teenagers and young adults working in their offices? Is your recommendation meant to suggest that if an intern wears suggestive clothing, she or he will share partial responsibility for any potential sexual harassment or assault?”

(Kidd and King did not return messages requesting comment from St. Louis Public Radio.)

After the Star’s story received some less-than-flattering attention, Richardson released a statement saying there would be no changes to the intern dress code.

“The legislature should be a safe place for learning about government and the legislative process, and my goal is to ensure that safety,” Richardson said. “The working group did not recommend, and the House will not be implementing, changes to the dress code as the House already has in place a code that applies to all members, staff and interns equally. Our efforts have been, and remain, focused on improving the environment for interns to learn and gain experience here in the General Assembly.” 

Richardson’s statement received plaudits from state Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican, who tweeted: “We need to work on changing#molegenvironment for women, not intern attire.”

Former interns question preliminary suggestions

The treatment of interns became a major issue this year after high-profile incidents involving House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, and state Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence. Diehl resigned after the Star reported about sexually suggestive text messages with a 19-year-old intern, while LeVota is planning to resign later this month amid sexual harassment allegation. 

People mill in the hallway leading to the Missouri Senate chamber.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
People mill in the hallway leading to the Missouri Senate chamber.

Some of the preliminary suggestions mentioned in the Star’s story received pushback from two interns who publicly accused LeVota of harassment.

In a joint statement sent to St. Louis Public Radio, Alissa Hembree and Taylor Hirth, former interns for LeVota, said that while “we are encouraged to learn of measures being considered by members of the Missouri House to clean up the culture in Jefferson City, we are disheartened by some of the changes being proposed.

“Suggestions requiring certain GPAs, increased supervision and mandatory dress codes suggest that the interns are lacking in quality, knowledge, or character and are in some way to blame for the harassment they experience,” Hirth and Hembree wrote. “Additionally, it implies that those perpetuating this behavior are unable to control their own behaviors. Focusing on dress habits and reporting suggests that harassment is about something other than power and control.”

Hembree and Hirth’s statement also said:

“It's important to ask whether the predominantly male leadership is able to adequately address the needs of those who have been victims of sexual harassment.

“We believe the focus needs to be on challenging the norms that enable this problematic culture,” they  said. “Ethics reforms need to be enacted that stop perpetuating the fraternity mentality rampant in the halls of the Capitol. Reporting and subsequent investigations need to be handled by an independent party or organization having experience dealing with sexual harassment and/or sexual violence, and is able to provide adequate support for those victimized by inappropriate behaviors or worse.

“It’s time for the leadership of the Missouri General Assembly to stop blaming the victims and insist that their caucuses behave in the manner befitting the trust placed in them by their constituents.  We won’t be silenced anymore.”

Inform our reporting

Are dress codes the answer? Share what you know about the work environment at Missouri's Capitol. Become a source for St. Louis Public Radio and tell us: What's going on in Jefferson City?

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.