Lawmakers look to update sexual misconduct policies

Almost 30 years ago, when Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi was a teenager, she says she was raped at a party.

“We met some guys who went to a local college, ended up back at a house. I’m still fairly certain I was drugged,” she recounted. “I went home and cried myself to sleep and try to pretend it never happened.”

Schepisi said she didn’t tell anyone until many years later because she was ashamed of it.

But last year, the conversation about sexual harassment was put in the forefront when people started using the hashtag #MeToo on social media to share their own experiences.

Schepisi said the #MeToo movement has given an opportunity for people, regardless of political affiliation, to come out and tell their stories, including her own.

“I work with women all the time who are in the Assembly, who are in business … and still feel as if they come forward, if they tell their story, that somehow, some way their career will be in jeopardy,” said Schepisi.

She wants to use her experience and voice to put forth a better way to do things so everyone feels empowered to speak out. That’s why she’s joining other men and women to form the Time is Now Action Coalition, a group of business, nonprofit, labor, legal, political and educational leaders.

“We have power. And we want to be able to make sure that all the corporate leaders and all the small businesses leaders are aware of our great policies and practices that they can be impacting and putting in place in their arenas,” said Bergen County YMCA’s CEO Helen Archontou.

One of the leaders of the coalition is Democratic Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, who shared her own story about what happened when she tried to pass legislation to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace about 10 years ago.

“Lawyers from our staff, in the Majority Office by the way, said, you can’t do that. You know what kind of can of worms will open up? That everyone in the workplace will start a lawsuit,” said Huttle.

Huttle is also one of the lawmakers calling for change at the State House. The Legislature’s policy on sexual harassment hasn’t been updated since 2009.

The Associated Press did an analysis examining each state’s policies on the topic. It found New Jersey is one of 17 states that does not require sexual harassment training for state legislators and their employees. The AP gave the state a two out of 10 for its current sexual harassment policies.

Huttle says she wants to see it changed, so when people enter their position in the State House, they will be given a manual and training.

“What we can do is try to change the culture. So I’m going to ask Holly, publicly, when I work on this bill, along with Sen. Loretta Weinberg, to have an updated sexual harassment policy, to prevent any type of workplace harassment, if you would join me?” said Huttle.

Schepisi agreed. Both are hoping this will be bipartisan legislation.

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