Sen. Jeb Bradley, center, speaks on the Senate floor. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
New Hampshire schools could be swept into a new cultural divide after the New Hampshire Senate passed a bill to guarantee parental rights to be informed of sensitive information that their children divulge to school staff.
In a vote Thursday, the Senate passed House Bill 1431, named the “parental bill of rights,” bringing the measure one step closer to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk.
But the debate ahead of the bill’s passage revealed wide divisions between Republicans and Democrats over the proper roles of parents and schools when it comes to students’ lives. And it’s drawn sharp criticism from civil rights groups, public school unions and representatives, and LGBTQ+ groups over concerns that it could compromise the ability of students to explore their gender identity away from their parents’ immediate knowledge.
To supporters of the bill, the legislation allows parents to be kept in the loop on significant decisions their children make and problems they endure. To opponents, the bill interferes with what can be valuable relationships of trust between students and teachers or guidance counselors, and could turn some students away from confiding in school staff at all.
The bill establishes in state statute the “fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their minor children,” and states that that right must be upheld by allowing parents continual access to information about “the health, education, and well-being” of those children.
The legislation protects parents’ right to direct the “moral or religious training” of a child, and institutes a number of reporting requirements for the school.
It opens the possibility of disciplinary action against teachers or staff who attempt to encourage or coerce a student to withhold information from their parents.
It requires that schools set out policies for how to boost parent cooperation in homework, school attendance, and discipline, and how to inform parents about curricula, extracurricular clubs, and activities, and their statutory right to object to instructional materials and find alternatives for their child.
It mandates that parents be informed of their child’s “registration in classes, athletic teams, clubs, or other extracurricular activities.” And it requires that parents are made aware of any medical, psychological, or counseling services their child receives.
Meanwhile, under the bill, schools would need to notify parents “promptly” of any action or investigation into the student over a number of areas, including: “student conduct, truancy, dress code violations, sexual harassment, bullying, hazing, behavior management and intervention, substance use, suicide prevention, gender expression or identity, disability accommodation, and special meal prescription.”
One of those provisions, “gender expression or identity,” has raised concerns. Critics have argued the bill would require schools to “out” to parents a student’s attempts to explore their gender identity, and could create undesired situations for children whose parents don’t accept that identity.
The new law would require schools to tell parents if their children requested to be referred to by different names or pronouns in school – even if the child had not done the same at home.
That provision set off profound disagreement among senators over whether parents should know about their child’s identity struggles before the child is ready to tell their parents.
Opponents of the bill say the notification requirement could discourage students from reaching out to teachers at all.
“We know that this could cause harm to LGBT students and undermine schools’ efforts to create an affirming learning environment for all students,” said Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat.
“Schools should never be in the position of outing LGBT youth to their parents. That’s what this bill would do,” she said.
Whitley raised concerns that the law could impede ethical obligations of school counselors to maintain student privacy. And she said the bill could clash with a 2018 state law that prohibits discrimination in the state on the basis of gender identity.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a former high school teacher and basketball coach, said many students seek out role models and confidants at school, and said the proposed law could rupture that trust. D’Allesandro said some of his students and players still reach out to him to catch up over lunch.
He argued the bill could interfere with even basic exercises like “show and tell” at morning meetings, if a teacher thought a child mentioned something that rose to the level of informing the parents.
Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, argued the bill would stymie adolescents’ ability to explore feelings and work through identities in a safe environment – whether through an LGBTQ+ club or a trusted teacher.
“What I think we end up doing is we end up policing curiosity,” he said. “The child who wants to explore things, think about things, maybe get together with other groups of children and talk and learn about how they are.”
But to supporters of the bill, the criticism is misplaced. The purpose of the bill, they said, is to strengthen fundamental connections between child and parent.
“This bill really speaks to: Who has responsibility for the children?” said Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican. “Who is responsible? Is it the parents? Is it government? Is it school?”
She continued: “We’ve talked about the sacred relationship that sometimes will exist outside the parent-child relationship. Shouldn’t we respect the fact that the parent-child is the most sacred relationship of all? Why would we have people interfering with that relationship?”
Supporters and opponents have reacted differently to the possibility that students might be “outed” to their parents by their school if the bill passes.
LGBTQ+ rights groups have denounced the bill over that possible outcome. Chris Erchull, a staff attorney at GLAD, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, said some students use school resources to work out how and when to come out to their parents.
“For LGBTQ students, this crucial role can add value to one of the most sensitive and important family conversations of their lives,” Erchull said in a statement. “This legislation will take that support away from students and instead force educators to interfere with families by outing students before they are ready.”
Linds Jakows, an organizer for Trans Action NH, used starker terms.
“No LGBTQ student should be deprived of the safety and affirmation a public school can provide,” Jakows said in a statement. “Everyone who supports LGBTQ students must contact Governor Sununu to veto this dangerous bill.”
But some Republican senators see the outcomes in a different light.
Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican, brought up his own children, whom he celebrates via multiple pictures hanging in his office.
“I’m their big supporter, and I want the best for them,” Gannon said. “And so if it meant keeping me in the loop, I want to know what counselors they’re seeing. If they have a gender identity problem, I want to accept it. I’m not going to be harsh or treat them bad. But the roots in my family are the most important thing to me. And I want to be in that loop.”
Carson agreed, arguing that many parents would be accepting of any information they learned about their child from the proposed reporting requirements.
“By not informing the parents, are we taking away the parents’ opportunity to embrace their child?” she said. “Because not all parents are not happy with their kids if they come out. But by hiding it from the parents, how can they support their children? How can they hug them and embrace them and tell them, look, we love you?”
Whitley countered that school policies should be catered to the exceptions to that rule.
“There are some parents who cannot accept their child who has a different sexual orientation than they agree with,” she said. “And for some children, it might be dangerous for that fact to be disclosed to their parent.”
Because the bill has been amended by the Senate, it moves back to the House for sign off. If the House approves the changes, or the two chambers negotiate an agreement, the bill will move to the governor’s desk. A spokesman for Sununu did not reply to a request for comment Friday.
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