New Jersey officials are stepping up efforts to combat sexual harassment through hearings that are meant to inform recommendations, with the first scheduled for tomorrow night in Asbury Park.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced on Monday that three hearings will be held in different parts of the state to allow experts and the public to talk about sexual harassment: What it is and how to prevent or stop it. Discussions will be focused on harassment in the workplace, in housing and in public places.
Sexual harassment is an issue that has already received a lot of attention in New Jersey, at least where the conduct of state officials is concerned. That was due to the accusation by Katie Brennan, now the chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, that Al Alvarez, former chief of staff of the state Schools Development Authority, sexually assaulted her while both were working on Gov. Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign.
As a result, a special legislative committee issued a report critical of the way Murphy administration officials handled the matter. The Legislature also passed and Murphy signed laws stripping public workers and elected officials convicted of sexual contact, sexual assault or lewdness of their taxpayer-funded pensions. Murphy also signed a new law essentially banning the use of non-disclosure agreements and forced arbitration in employment contracts and settlement agreements in cases involving discrimination, retaliation and harassment, including sexual assault and harassment.
‘Silence is a huge part of the problem’
Tomorrow night’s 6 p.m. hearing at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park and two additional sessions — September 24 in Hackensack and September 25 in Atlantic City — are designed to look more broadly at sexual harassment in any workplace and in other aspects of life.
“Sexual harassment is ubiquitous — it affects people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, immigration status, or disability,” said Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the state Division on Civil Rights, which is co-sponsoring the hearings with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Silence is a huge part of the problem. The purpose of these hearings is to end the silence — to allow victims to come forward to share their stories and to allow experts to share what we can do, in terms of law and policy, to prevent and address sexual harassment at work, in housing, and in places of public accommodation.”
Expected to testify will be experts in a number of related areas — labor unions, advocacy organizations, academia, community organizations, businesses and groups working with survivors of sexual violence service providers — as well as members of the public. Some of the discussion is set to focus on the scope of the problem and how to address it, but victims of harassment are also encouraged to tell their stories.
Following all the hearings, officials from the civil rights division, NJCASA and the Rutgers Law School International Human Rights Clinic are to issue a report that will include recommendations for policy and legislative actions. That report is expected out early next year, a spokesman for Grewal said.
“Sexual harassment has no place in the workplace, in housing, or anywhere else, but regrettably, in 2019, sexual harassment still remains all too common,” Grewal said. He added that he hoped the hearings will bring about “frank discussion about the problem and how we can best address it, as individuals and as members of our communities.”
Grewal has already taken some steps to combat sexual violence in the state and improve the way investigators treat victims and investigate potential crimes. Last year, Grewal issued to law-enforcement officers statewide 14 best-practice standards for handling sexual-assault allegations, as well as a directive to ensure that police, prosecutors and others follow these rules. The protocols also set new reporting requirements for officials to help Grewal’s office better track and evaluate how cases are being handled and require additional training of all police officers in the state.
Long-term harm to victims
Sexual harassment usually does not rise to the level of assault. It can include a host of actions, among them offensive comments about a person’s sex, displaying pictures of a sexual nature or unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors.
A 2014 report by the national organization Equal Rights Advocates stated that sexual harassment in the workplace does wide-ranging harm to victims: “Sexual harassment compromises the economic security of women workers because women who are harassed are often denied or deterred from promotions, fired, or forced to leave their jobs, regardless of whether they file a complaint.”
“For too long, sexual harassment has been dismissed, discounted or even accepted as a part of life that one must endure. Victims have been silenced and offenders empowered,” said Anna Martinez, director of the state Division on Women. “Survivor-led advocacy groups have courageously shone a bright light on the pervasiveness of the problem and the long-term trauma that can result from being victimized. These hearings are about sustaining awareness.”
Sexual harassment appears to be widespread. A 2018 survey by Stop Street Harassment found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment and/or assault.
“Sexual harassment is pervasive and has impacted far too many New Jerseyans for too long,” said Patricia Teffenhart, the coalition’s executive director. “These hearings give us the opportunity to craft policy recommendations that are wholly responsive to the lived experiences that survivors are sharing. NJCASA looks forward to continuing the work set out in these hearings, working with lawmakers to introduce policies shaped by survivors’ concerns.”
Anna María Farías, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is scheduled to deliver opening remarks at tomorrow’s hearing. Grewal is set to speak at the Sept. 24 hearing, beginning at 6 p.m. at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center. The Sept. 25 hearing is slated for 6 p.m. at the All Wars Memorial Building in Atlantic City.
Those who wish to speak at a hearing or provide written testimony through Oct. 15 can do so via the DCR’s website.