Parental bill of rights narrowly fails in NH House, but debate isn’t over yet

By: - March 22, 2023 1:45 pm

Opponents of House Bill 10, the parental rights bill, gathered in front of the State House ahead of a House vote. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire House on Wednesday voted down an effort to require educators to tell inquiring parents whether their child had made any changes to their pronouns at school – or face jail time.

But the chamber left open the possibility of revisiting the issue when a similar Senate bill crosses over to the House next month.

In a close 190-194 vote, House lawmakers voted down an amendment from Rep. Bob Lynn that would have required schools to tell a parent who asks whether their child had “being identified as having a gender or pronouns other than that which was recorded or used when the child was enrolled.” 

The House then tabled the original, unamended bill, House Bill 10, which lays out a number of other parental rights in schools, 193-192. Four Republican lawmakers joined all 191 Democrats present to vote against that bill. 

Chris Erchull, attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) said he was “relieved” at the outcome.

“Parents and schools can and should partner to support students in their education, but proposals like HB 10 are the wrong way to do that,” Erchull said. “All they do is take away important sources of safety for LGBTQ+ kids and make it harder for educators to do the job we all rely on them to do.” 

The string of votes signaled a narrow rejection of a proposal that has gained traction among Republican lawmakers in recent years: that schools be required to tell parents if their child is transitioning to a different gender. 

But Wednesday’s vote did not close the door on the legislation. Earlier this month, the Senate approved Senate Bill 272, which also requires that teachers disclose gender pronoun changes to inquiring parents. That bill will automatically receive a House floor vote in the coming months. And Republican lawmakers could opt to add the parental bill of rights to the budget trailer bill or to a key piece of bipartisan legislation as a bargaining chip. 

Lynn’s floor amendment Wednesday, which was co-sponsored by House Speaker Sherman Packard, would have required teachers to divulge those pronoun changes to an inquiring parent even if “potential or actual psychological or emotional injury” to the child could result. 

“Potential or actual psychological or emotional injury to a child from a parent’s actual, threatened, or anticipated reaction to learning information about his or her child, including emotions such as anger, disappointment, sadness, disapproval or other behaviors does not constitute a compelling state interest for withholding information about the child from a parent,” the amendment stated. 

The amendment added that a school official could initiate an abuse or neglect action against the parent for any emotional or psychological injury the child suffered after the school informed the parents, “if sufficiently serious.” And it allowed school officials to withhold information from parents if “the physical safety of the child has been harmed or is threatened with harm.” 

Under the amendment, educators who knowingly violated the disclosure requirement could be sued for injunctive relief by parents, have their teaching credentials suspended or revoked, and be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. That charge can lead to jail time of up to one year or a fine of $2,000.

Debate over the bill and its amendment was fierce.

Lynn said his amendment would not prevent school officials from investigating and taking action against child abuse. But he argued schools should not withhold information about a child’s gender identity just because a parent might not react well to the news. 

“Even if the child says something like ‘You know if I tell my father, he’ll kill me,’ Lynn said. “Well if that’s what the child says, the school certainly has an obligation to go further than that, and find out: Is the child really saying ‘My parent will kill me,’ … or is the child just saying ‘You know if I tell my parent, he’s gonna be very disappointed and angry and upset with me?’”

Lynn added, “We should not be protecting children from the ordinary things in life – the ordinary human emotions that parents express from time to time. Life is hard sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that their school should be able to keep information from their parents.” 

Rep. Bob Lynn, a Windham Republican, speaking in favor of House Bill 10, the parental bill of rights, March 22, 2023 (Ethan DeWitt)

Opponents disagreed, pointing to high suicide rates among transgender teenagers nationally. A 2021 Trevor Project study in the American Journal of Community Psychology found that LGBTQ teens are more likely to attempt suicide in unsupportive homes. 

Rep. Heather Raymond, a Nashua Democrat, said the bill would give students who wanted to confide in teachers or school staff no shield against their parents finding out, even if they stated that their parents would react angrily. 

“It creates a pathway for abusive parents to exploit individuals and schools to further control childrens’ behaviors,” Raymond said. 

As originally introduced, HB 10 outlined a number of additional rights to parents in their schools – many of which exist in law currently – including the right to refuse vaccinations, the right to exempt their child from sex education or from specific classroom materials, and the right to examine a class curriculum. The original bill did not include gender identity disclosures. 

But the proposed additions relating to gender identity disclosures commanded the most attention Wednesday. 

Ahead of the vote Wednesday, a crowd of several dozen LGBTQ rights supporters gathered to oppose the bill, including some who identified as transgender.

“Protect trans kids from ignorant adults,” read one person’s poster.

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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]