In a party-line vote, the New Hampshire Senate signed off Thursday on a Republican-backed bill that would require schools to answer “truthfully and completely” when parents ask about their child’s gender expression.
The legislation, which would force teachers to out transgender students, is part of a package to establish “a parents’ bill of rights in education.” While critics denounced parts of Senate Bill 272 as anti-LGBTQ measures that could further harm an already vulnerable group of young people, the bill’s backers contended it rightly respects the role parents play in the lives of their children.
Senator Dan Innis, a Republican from Bradford, told his colleagues on Thursday that he, as a gay man, knows firsthand that coming out as LGBTQ is never easy.
“It’s scary,” he said. “You don’t know how people are going to react.”
As a father of three, Innis said he also knows how important a parent’s relationship is with their children. Some schools in New Hampshire have enacted or are considering policies that, he said, would interfere with that parent-child relationship by telling teachers they can’t disclose a student’s transgender status to parents. This legislation would simply reassert a parent’s right to be informed, he said.
“This bill is not anti-anything. … This bill is pro-child, pro-parent, pro-family, and in many ways pro-teacher,” Innis said. “So let’s let parents be parents in partnership with the schools and teachers, to help children to navigate their way into adulthood, where they can be productive citizens and show that same love and support that their parents and teachers showed them to their own children.”
Senator Daryl Abbas, a Republican from Salem, said public school teachers, as government employees, shouldn’t be keeping secrets from parents about their students.
“This isn’t about phobias. This isn’t an attack or directed at any group of individuals. This is about putting parents in a position where they stay involved in the upbringing of their children,” Abbas said.
Those justifications didn’t assuage the objections of Democrats, who said the bill isn’t exactly as its backers make it seem.
Senator Donovan Fenton, a Democrat from Keene, said most of the parental rights outlined in the bill already exist elsewhere in New Hampshire law, so schools already know about those rules, and parents can already access those rights. The provisions related to a student’s gender identity are a “glaring exception,” he said.
“By singling out transgender students to be specifically surveilled and reported on by their teachers, those students will not only have their rights violated, they’ll be made all the more vulnerable to harm,” Fenton said. “Whether that harm is caused when a student is outed to an unsupportive family member or by making a student feel as though they cannot be their authentic self out of fear of reporting, the undebatable reality is that SB 272 will cause harm.”
Fenton said this bill reflects a national “transphobic and homophobic narrative” that has seeped into New Hampshire politics.
Hershey Hirschkop, executive director of Seacoast Outright, said LGBTQ youth suffer disproportionally high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality.
“This bill would exacerbate these problems by eliminating what might be the only place they feel safe and welcome: their school,” Hirschkop said.
To lawfully withhold information from a parent under SB 272, school personnel would have to prepare a written report that explains the factual basis for “a compelling state interest” to infringe parental rights. Any parent who claims the law has been violated would be allowed to file a lawsuit against the school or school personnel. If a parent wins their case, then the court would award reasonable attorney fees and court costs, according to the bill.
The Senate’s 14-10 vote means SB 272 is headed to the House, where a similar parental rights bill died last year under a veto threat from Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican. It’s not yet clear whether this year’s version could sooth Sununu’s qualms. He hasn’t weighed in.
Republicans in the House are advancing their own parental rights bill, House Bill 10, which doesn’t force disclosure of information about a student’s gender expression at school. It’s expected to come up for a vote before the full House in the weeks ahead.
House tables 2 school-related bills
While the Senate approved its parental rights bill on Thursday, the House set aside an opportunity to approve two other bills related to gender and sexuality at school.
House Bill 104 would require schools to separate their multi-stall bathrooms and locker rooms by sex, not gender. This has been a hotly debated issue at some school districts, including in Milford, where parents have voiced concerns about policies that allow students to access the bathroom that “corresponds to their gender identity consistently asserted at school.”
House Bill 514 would prohibit the dissemination of “obscene material” by schools. The legislative effort comes as parents increasingly raise objections to books about sexuality being on school library shelves, especially when those books deal with LGBTQ themes and offer visual depictions. Democrats denounced the measure as a “book ban” bill.
The House voted Thursday to table both HB 104 and HB 514. With a simple majority vote, the chamber could take the bills off the table again to resume debate. But if representatives wait until after a deadline next week, they would need a two-thirds supermajority to actually pass the bills, according to House Clerk Paul Smith.
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, a Republican from Auburn, told the Globe that he appreciates Democrats’ willingness to table the bills “and continue working together with us on solutions to these issues of critical importance to our constituents.”
Steven Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterporter.