By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House put a stake in the heart of the “parental bill of rights” Thursday by voting to not only kill the bill, but to prevent it from being introduced next year as well.
Opponents say Senate Bill 272 targets LGBTQ youth by requiring schools to tell parents a child’s sexual identity, or other information such as pronouns or extracurricular activities.
The bill was amended to remove the most controversial section guaranteeing a parent’s right to question what his or her child does in school and requiring school personnel to answer those questions truthfully, as well as protect the current law enforcement process and to remove a section allowing teachers and schools to recoup legal bills if they are sued unsuccessfully.
Although the amended bill was significantly different from the one the Senate passed on a partisan 14-10 vote, House opponents did not want to approve it in any form.
House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, asked that the debate be respectful over the controversial bill saying, “The chamber will remain respectful to the speakers. No booing, yelling, hollering.”
The only real outburst came when House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, angrily shouted his opposition to the motion to end discussion of the topic for the remainder of the current two-year term.
“For the next two years, parents will have to continue to accept that school is a mysterious and secretive black box where they deposit their children. Who knows what happens inside that box, and who knows what comes out the other side.” Osborne said. “By indefinitely postponing this bill, parents will have no choice but to avail themselves of the wildly successful education freedom account program, which we thankfully expanded this year to service even more children than ever before.”
But opponents of the bill noted that nearly 500 similar bills attacking LGBTQ youth have been introduced into state legislatures across the country this year.
Rep. Alexis Simpson, D-Exeter, urged her colleagues to kill the bill and prevent it from coming back next year.
“Adolescent development involves identity exploration,” she said. “Having trust between a student and teacher means students have better mental health outcomes and lower suicide rates.”
The motion to indefinitely postpone, which prevents a similar or identical bill from coming up again before the current term ends in December 2024, was approved on a 196-190 vote.
Senate Bill 272 is similar to a bill the House defeated by one vote earlier this session.
Supporters say parents have a right to know what their child’s sexual identity is in school versus home, and if a child is being bullied for their identity or using different pronouns.
But opponents say it targets only LGBTQ students and protects the student-teacher relationship that allows a student to trust educators to have his or her best interest at heart.
The House Education Committee split evenly down party lines 10-10 on the bill and goes to the House floor without a recommendation.
One amendment deleted the section of the bill stating a parent has ‘the right to inquire of the school or school personnel and to be truthfully and completely informed if the student is using a different name at school that would indicate a gender change, is referred to at school by a different name indicating a gender change, if a school staff is intervening to help affirm a change in a student’s gender, and the student’s participation in extracurricular activities, clubs or organizations.
Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, argued removing that section would gut the bill and turn it on its head.
“A parent is entrusted with the upbringing of their children and has been for decades, for millennia,” he said. “It is only recently government has taken a stronger role in families.”
He said he knows because a mandatory reporter put his family through a long and arduous ordeal before a judge said they were in fact a loving family.
“But that did not come without emotional pain for my children,” Hoell said. “Every time government gets involved with family, some harm is done.”
He said when a parent asks the school a question, they should get an honest answer. “If they can’t get simple things right, what is government doing for us,” Hoell asked.
Rep. Jim Kofalt, R-Wilton, said the amendment appears to say New Hampshire students need protection.
“That raises the question ‘Who are we protecting them from,’” he asked, noting Sunday was Mother’s Day and in another month it will be Father’s Day.
Kofalt said the amendment changes the bill “just to be sure parents can be trusted.”
But Rep. Mike Bordes, R-Laconia, said removing the section had bipartisan support, noting if a child tells a teacher or school counselor something in confidence, this bill would force them to do something that violates the students’ privacy.
“A guidance counselor would have to rat out their students,” he noted.
The House approved removing the section on a 201-184 vote, which was the high mark for those opposed to the bill.
Other amendments passed on 198-187 votes with one- or two-vote swing.
One amendment would have changed the section of the bill that allows parents to sue schools and teachers by allowing them to recoup court costs if they prevail over the parent who filed the complaint.
Rep. Linda Ryan, D-Nashua, a retired middle school teacher, told the House her job not only required teaching but hall monitoring, lunch and bus duty and chaperoning dances where two girls dance with each other and then “10 minutes later they are not gay anymore.”
She said under the bill, as a teacher she would have to keep a record and call the parent every time she sees two girls hugging in the hallway.
Ryan urged her colleagues to be substitute teachers and see for themselves “what this bill will do to public schools and teachers.”
The amendment was approved on a 198-187 vote.
Rep. Dan Hynes, R-Bedford, introduced two bills that would protect the constitutional rights of children, which he said are just as valid as parental rights.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that students’ free speech rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gates, he noted, and said the principle that individual rights are free from government intrusion is essential.
Another amendment would have protected the privacy rights of students in discussions with school counselors and teachers.
A parental bill or rights bill passed the House and Senate last year, but Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed it saying one section violated state law and he raised other objections as well.
Earlier this week he said he would not veto SB 262 if it were not changed by the House.
The governor will not get the bill after the House took its action.
The almost evenly divided House often means the party with the most members attending sessions most often prevail.
During Thursday’s session there were only nine members officially excused, although 15 representatives were absent from votes.
One legislator absent was Rep. Robin Vogt, D-Portsmouth, who was in Florida, where Wednesday Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a number of bills targeting the LGBTQ community, refused to return to make Thursday’s session, saying family is more important.
An offer by an activist to pay for him to fly to New Hampshire and then back to Florida, brought objections from Osborne, who implied it was an attempt to sway his vote, and Sherman said the situation would be investigated.
Opponents of the bill did not need his vote Thursday.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.