JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said Thursday that she donated $10,000 to an advocacy group to help interns facing sexual harassment, an issue that drew national attention to the state Legislature after the resignations this year of two lawmakers accused of inappropriate behavior with interns.
The donation provides seed money for a panel of Missouri college and university representatives collaborating on how to best assist interns, said Matthew Huffman, program development specialist with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. He said the panel will consider interns at the Capitol and in other roles.
Former state Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, stepped down in August following allegations that he sexually harassed interns, which he denied.
One intern's claims launched a Senate investigation and led another to come forward with similar claims. McCaskill and other top state Democrats such as Gov. Jay Nixon publicly questioned LeVota's ability to serve in response.
Former Republican House Speaker John Diehl also left the chamber in disarray on the last day of session in May after admitting to exchanging sexually charged text messages with a Capitol intern.
McCaskill, who said she dealt with sexual harassment when she interned at the state Legislature, applauded lawmakers' recent efforts to address the culture in Jefferson City. Changes include newly mandated annual sexual harassment training for House members and staff.
But McCaskill for months also has called for ways for interns to find help outside the Capitol, such as a hotline.
"The biggest issue facing someone who is being harassed in a situation where someone has a lot more power than you have is, 'Where can I go to find out what I should do?'" McCaskill said.
Huffman said representatives from nine public and private colleges and universities — including the University of Central Missouri, which the intern who reported being harassed by LeVota attended — are part of the new panel. Members include intern coordinators, counseling directors and college investigators of possible violations of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination in education.
Huffman said members will look for services that are already available and identify ways to best connect interns with help and information about sexual harassment. Ongoing prevention education, Huffman said, is necessary because students face different challenges when they get ready to join the workforce.
"The information you get as a freshman is going to be very different from when you're a junior and a senior," Huffman said.
Huffman said the hope is to come up with a plan by April 2016.
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