Unanimous Support for Repealing Divisive Concepts Law

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Rep. Damond Ford, D-Manchester, speaks in support of House Bill 1162 before the House Education Committee Tuesday. The bill would repeal the state's divisive concepts law.


CONCORD — A bill to repeal the state’s divisive concepts law would allow teachers to have open and honest discussions in classrooms without fear of reprisals, supporters told the House Education Committee Tuesday.

House Bill 1162 would repeal the law that was included in the 2021-2022 biennial budget because it lacked enough votes in the House as a stand-alone bill.

The prime sponsor of HB 1162, Rep. Peter Petrigno, D-Milford, said the law on the books is an insult to public school teachers.

Having taught in public and private schools for 40 years, he had never heard of critical race theory or divisive concepts.

“This is not a New Hampshire issue,” Petrigno said, “rather it is a national effort by a political action group who believes public schools are indoctrinating students with racial and some other topics they don’t want discussed.”
He said racism is real and it is ugly, and indoctrination has no place in New Hampshire or anywhere in America.

But Petrigno said the way to cure racism is to confront it head on and you can’t do that if you can’t talk about it.

You need to go beyond the who, what, where and when to the how and why so few students know how to do unbiased research, how to analyze the information and to form well-reasoned opinions, he said, and that is difficult for teachers under the current law.

Outlawing discrimination, or making someone feel inferior or superior, or if someone is inherently superior or inferior you don’t need a law, because that is not happening in schools, Petrigno said.

The real issue is finding a group inherently racist or sexist or oppressive, he said, or a creed of beliefs.

The attorney general has a whole list of hate groups in the state, Petrigno stated, and has clearly identified who they are.

“I am not saying everyone who supports this is a racist, but every racist does support this,” Petrigno said. “This law is a detriment to education and it must be overturned.”
Holly Wilson, a teacher at the Weare Middle School, said she was targeted under the law.

She wanted to use a controversial book, but was scared and researched it and believed there would be no violation of the new law.

After her lessons were done, someone went into her classroom, took pictures of posters on the walls and of her notes and turned her into the state for violating the law.

She said Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut used her complaint in his op-ed piece on some teachers going against family values.

Wilson said she had to turn over all her lesson plans to the Department of Education and the school’s superintendent was also involved.

The Department of Education decided there was no violation, but they are not the body that would do any reprimanding, she said.

Ultimately nothing was done, she said, but she worried about losing her teaching certificate.

Since the incident, she is “very careful with the words I choose with students,” Wilson said. She said the other staff members were very supportive, including some very conservative members, and no one said anything like she was not a very good teacher to be using a book like that.

Wilson said she is still using the book in her lessons.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Maria Perez, I-Nashua, who is from El Salvador, said she is from a multi-racial family and she is proud of her indigenous mother and white father who is a famous architect in her native country.

Perez said students should be able to learn about families like hers and their history to help teach that someone is not better than someone else, but they all have their own histories.

“They should have opportunities to listen to their stories,” she said.

Rep. Damond Ford, D-Manchester, another sponsor of the bill, said there are multiple problems with the law. How do you connect what is happening now to what happened historically without larger conversations that become problematic under the law, he asked.

“You want a complete history. It is important to learn who are the winners and the losers and what happened,” Ford said. “Let’s keep having this conversation.”

He said he works with high school students who were not alive in the 1960s. He said it would be very difficult to have a conversation with them about race, slavery, reconstruction or black businesses not getting a loan as related to race without violating the law.

“The legislation hinders the ability to have conversations and discussions in an academic classroom,” Ford said.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union-NH, noted he is one of the attorneys that sued the state over the law in federal court.

“The reason we brought the case is the concern that the law is so unclear and vague,” he said, and state officials “have failed to provide the necessary guidance.”

He said there are some real penalties for educators who are bootstrapped with code of conduct sanctions all the way to loss of license.

That puts a real chill in classrooms as teachers do not want to get too close to the perceived line, Bissonnette said.

Sarah Robinson, Education Justice Campaign Director for Granite State Progress, supported the bill saying the current law lets “anti-school politicians fear monger instead of talking about the past in an honest way.”
It has “made teachers fear for their livelihood when they teach about racism, sowed doubt in public schools and ultimately (the goal) to dismantle public education,” Robinson said.

Both of the teachers’ unions, who also are part of the suit against the law, also supported the repeal.

Megan Tuttle, president of NEA — NH said the fear the law would handcuff teachers and put a chill over classrooms is true after two-and-a-half years under the law.

Teachers are afraid they will lose their livelihood when the consequences are so vague, and a complaint brings an investigation that could put them on social media and drag them through the mud.

“Our students deserve freedom to learn,” she said. 

Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers —NH noted only one complaint has been filed.  She said the law was never needed in New Hampshire as no one was teaching that whites are better than blacks or one race is superior to another.

“You tar all teachers in the state with something you say is going on that was not happening,” Howes said. “The effect is to make education for public school students worse, not robust.”
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com. Garry has 40 years of experience as a reporter in New Hampshire.

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