In narrow vote, parental rights bill rejected by House

By: - May 26, 2022 4:11 pm
House members fill the House chamber

The New Hampshire House rejected a “parental rights” bill in a narrow 171-176 vote. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated at 7 p.m. on May 26, 2022, with additional comments and details.

The New Hampshire House rejected a “parental rights” bill Thursday that would have required schools to notify parents of a number of developments with their children, including with their gender identity and expression.

In a narrow 171-176 vote, the House failed to pass an updated version of the bill, House Bill 1431, hours after Senate Republicans had passed it on party lines, 14-10. 

Thirteen House Republicans joined with every House Democrat to reject the “ought to pass” motion for the controversial bill Thursday. The House then rejected a “motion for reconsideration,” effectively sealing its fate.

The vote brings to an end a proposal that Republican supporters had argued would allow parents to be kept in the loop, but that opponents had said would result in teachers being required to “out” students’ gender identity concerns to their parents.

Gov. Chris Sununu had already vowed to veto the bill in a statement last week, citing concerns from his Attorney General’s Office that the bill would unlawfully target students for their gender identity. New Hampshire passed a law in 2018 that added gender identity to the list of protected categories in the state’s anti-discrimination statutes, which apply to public school students. 

HB 1431 had begun in the House as a general “parental rights” bill that outlined a number of options parents have to review school curricula, withdraw their child from certain instruction, and to review records related to their child.

In a late amendment introduced at the end of April, the Senate added in new requirements that schools notify parents any time the school took action relating to “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.”

That provision was presented by supporters as a way to keep parents informed of key developments and allow them to accept them with their child. But LGBTQ+ advocates, civil rights groups, teachers unions, and school representatives argued that it would discourage students from seeking help at school under the fear that a teacher would pass the information to their parents.

“I’m just so grateful to have all the legislators who stood up, you know, to protect LGBTQ children today and to protect the privacy of New Hampshire’s families, and to protect the relationship of trust that’s so important between teachers and students,” said Chris Erchull, a staff attorney at GLAD, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, in an interview after the vote. 

The debate pitted lawyers for the Attorney General’s Office against lawyers for the Republican-led House and Senate. In a memo to lawmakers last week, Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, the head of the state’s civil rights unit, argued that the bill would violate the state’s gender identity protections and could open schools up to liability.

“The language specifically targets students based upon their gender identity or expression,” Locke said at the time.

Sununu pointed to those concerns when issuing his promise to veto the bill. “This bill as written creates numerous challenges for kids,” he said. “I share the concerns of the Attorney General and as such, will veto the bill if it reaches my desk.”

In a counterargument letter sent to lawmakers this week, attorney Rich Lehmann, New Hampshire Senate Counsel, and Sean List pushed back at the attorney general’s assertions. 

“HB 1431 imposes no duty on a school to make a disclosure when a student simply confides in a trusted adult that they are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation,” wrote List, a partner of Lehmann, Major List, PLLC. “However, there are multiple school districts who maintain policies permitting students to use bathrooms, locker rooms, be addressed by pronouns, and participate in athletics associated with a different gender than the student’s birth gender. … In those such circumstances, a parent will have a right to be informed.”

Passions over the issue spilled out in front of the State House Thursday. Meeting ahead of the start of the day’s legislative session, a group of demonstrators and counter demonstrators made dueling arguments over the role of teachers and parents in childhood development. 

Rick Budd of Franklin called the bill a “no-brainer,” arguing the bill would keep parents informed of behavioral problems in school or mental health issues among kids. 

“This bill will help teachers to maybe share with parents things that right now aren’t being shared,” he said. 

Budd said he understood the concerns that passing the bill could dissuade some students from confiding in teachers at all. But he said that children should be able to come to their parents first. “Students should be closer to their parents. That’s a problem the parents should have worked out as they’re raising up their child.”

Budd, now a grandfather, said he didn’t believe his son had confided in teachers or school staff before his parents about major developments. If they had, he said he would have tried to talk them out of it. 

“I would have picked up on my child if he was leaning – thinking he was a girl,” he said. “… I would have talked to him. I wouldn’t have said, ‘Well share with your teachers, or you need to talk to a few teachers and think about it.’ No. I’m going to talk to him about it, and we would have talked and maybe (gone to) a counselor. It matters what God says about this.” 

It’s a mentality that Nancy Brennan, a counterprotester across the plaza, disagrees with.

As a former middle school and high school teacher, Brennan had many confidential conversations with her students. Sometimes she talked with LGBTQ kids concerned over how to come out to their parents.

One 17-year-old who came to Brennan faced a dilemma. He had already come out to his friends and his teachers, but he worried that if he told his father he would be kicked out of his house – and possibly lose help with college tuition.

“There was no way I would share that with the family,” Brennan, a Concord resident, said. “What I did do was I talked to him several times, asked him to think about some things, come back to me.”

There were not many social workers available as resources at the time. Brennan asked if the student could talk to his mom first. 

“Did I tried to convince him he’s gay?” she said. “No. I listened and I responded and listened some more.”

To Brennan, the conversation drove home the importance of school as a resource. 

“With kids going through what kids go through, and being somebody that kids sometimes feel like they can talk to when they can’t talk at home – I would hate to see that end,” she said. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]