Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke testifies before a committee of conference in opposition to a “parental rights” bill, which he argues will require schools to illegally out trans students to their parents. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)
An effort to pass a “parental bill of rights” came to an end Tuesday after House Republicans and Democrats voiced concerns the bill could require schools to “out” students’ gender identities to their parents and exacerbate teen suicide rates.
“There are a lot of great parents out there,” said Rep. Kimberly Rice, a Hudson Republican. “Unfortunately, there are also some not-so-great parents out there. And those are the kids that are the most vulnerable, and that I am deeply concerned about.”
As originally passed by the House, House Bill 1431 restated a number of already existing rights for parents in schools – including the right to review curricula and to withdraw their child from certain instruction – and allowed parents to seek damages against the state for a violation.
But a version passed by the Senate this month went further. It would have required that public schools notify parents any time their child joined a class, club, or sports team, as well as every time a school employee had “taken action” involving school policies related to a student’s “gender expression and identity.”
On Tuesday, Rice and other Republican House members on the “committee of conference” negotiating panel spoke strongly against the proposed notification requirements, and the group of three representatives and three senators failed to find an agreement.
The split effectively ends prospects for the bill in New Hampshire this year, as states across the country see similar legislative efforts to establish greater parental rights over school processes.
The breakdown in negotiations came after a number of advocacy civil rights groups, as well as the state Attorney General’s Office, also raised concerns the bill would require schools to “out” students, arguing it would discourage some students from seeking counseling and put others at risk.
In the days before the meeting, a group of those organizations co-signed a letter opposing the bill, including GLAD, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, New Hampshire AFL-CIO, National Education Association of New Hampshire, American Federation of Teachers, New Futures, Waypoint, and others.
Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, head of the state’s civil rights unit, told the committee Tuesday the bill could find schools in violation of the state’s 2018 anti-discrimination law, which added gender identity to the list of protections in public places and schools.
And Locke argued that schools could face legal liability should a student die by suicide after being “outed” to parents, as required by the bill.
“The language specifically targets students based upon their gender identity or expression,” Locke said.
Rice cited that opposition at the outset of the meeting and said the issues raised were too numerous to deal with in the final days of the legislative session.
Senate Republicans had said the notification requirements were necessary to allow parents to be informed of their child’s development and to prevent schools from withholding information that could prove important.
“We are here because we are concerned about our children,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican. “And the fact that parental rights have been eroded over time.”
Carson said the bill would ensure schools were not acting as counselors for students without parental sign off.
“When did teachers become mental health counselors?” Carson said. “When did that happen?”
She added: “If my child is going to get mental health counseling at school, I want to make sure that that person is qualified to do that type of counseling decision with my child. But because no one is being told, I don’t get to make that decision for my child.”
In an exchange with Carson, Locke disputed the argument that the conversations covered by the bill always counted as counseling or mental health treatment, noting the bill included situations where a student might be struggling with their gender identity and ask a teacher for advice.
“If a student says, ‘Look I’m questioning my sexuality; I’m worried about coming out to my parents because of their reaction,’ it may be counseling in a very broad sense…” he said. “But is it mental health counseling at the end of the day?”
Locke argued that the proposed law could prevent students from consulting school counselors or teachers about how to come out to their parents, a difficult decision that can require support.
At times, the debate Tuesday became passionate.
“So if we do nothing, aren’t we then saying to parents that schools can keep secrets from you in the coming year?” said Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican.
Rice responded: “No, I think we’re saying to parents that we want to make sure we do it right because that’s what’s in the best interest of their children.”
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