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Senate GOP Files ‘Honesty in Education Act,’ Reviving Parental Disclosure Debate

LGBTQ rights groups say the bill could out a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents before they are ready to tell them.

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In high school, Alice Wade spent a year planning how they would come out as transgender. And to be safe, they planned what to do if it went poorly.

“When I was 15, I made plans for what I would do, and which friend’s house I would go to, and how I would work to make enough money to live on my own if I had to become homeless,” Wade told New Hampshire lawmakers earlier this month.

Wade wanted to do it on their own terms. The process was gradual: first, Wade told their close friends, then a teacher, then their mom. Finally, they felt they could tell their dad. That was crucial, Wade said.

“While it wasn’t perfect, if my parents had found out before I was ready to tell them, I don’t know if I’d be alive here to give you my testimony,” Wade testified.

The experience of coming out in high school – and the choice of when to inform parents – is once again at the center of a legislative fight. State Senate Republicans are pushing for a bill this year that would require schools to disclose information to parents who ask for it, echoing efforts in the past two years that have fallen short. LGBTQ rights groups have said the bill could out a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents before they are ready to tell them.

Senate Bill 341 would require any school staff member to answer any written requests sent by parents for information about their children within 10 days of receiving the request.

School employees who feel that responding to such a request “would put that student at risk of endangerment of physical harm, abuse, or neglect” must file a report to the Division for Children, Youth, and Families within 48 hours, the bill states.

The bill adds that any violation of the requirement to provide the information must be referred to the school board to determine disciplinary action, which can include termination. Under the bill, if a parent isn’t satisfied with the school board’s chosen disciplinary action, they can appeal the decision to the state board of education, which could make its own final call to terminate the staff person.

Sen. Tim Lang, the Sanbornton Republican sponsoring the bill, likened it to the state’s right-to-know law, RSA 91-A. That law requires public officials to produce documents and information when requested by a member of the public, with exceptions for confidentiality.

“This bill extends that to the school setting,” Lang said during a press conference held by Senate Republicans this month.

“The school is obligated to respond in an honest and complete answer, and not hide any information from the parent,” he said.

During a Jan. 3 hearing, some members of the public agreed. Bridgewater’s Aubrey Freedman, who is gay, doesn’t support pronoun changes in school.

“It’s all about honesty,” said Freedman. “Nobody’s outing anybody, (but) if the parents want to ask the school personnel a question, they should be honest. I don’t think that’s a big deal.”

But advocates and young trans people countered that they believed the bill would result in children being outed, and would complicate the trust that teachers are trying to build with students.

Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, a teachers union, argued that parents and educators already work well together, and that the bill would “fracture” that relationship.

Tuttle said the bill’s disclosure requirements would override the chain of command within schools, and could interfere with collective bargaining agreements. And she cited a recent report by a legislative committee studying the teacher shortage that found that a climate of culture and fear has helped drive educators from the profession.

“We believe Senate Bill 341 would only be an extension of the sort of legislation that the committee found was driving current and prospective educators away from the profession,” she said.

Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, took issue with the appeals process to the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor and Executive Council, calling them “unelected bureaucrats.”

Sara Smith, a retired teacher, also opposed the bill. “I fundamentally believe in honesty, and if anybody asked me to lie I wouldn’t,” she said.

But Smith said as a teacher, her fundamental purpose “was to teach children to think for themselves.” Part of that effort involved building a “scaffolding” and a foundation of trust among students that the teacher would be there for them.

Teachers often have an open door for students to discuss personal issues, Smith said, which can help in the discovery of abuse and neglect issues. “But once this law is enacted, students can no longer expect their teachers to keep confidential issues they have shared with them,” Smith said.

The bill comes on the heels of two major attempts in 2022 and 2023 to pass similar legislation. Each time, the effort was thwarted in the House, which was narrowly dominated by Republicans in the 2021-2022 session and is now nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Opponents to the bills have raised concerns that requiring a school to divulge information to parents about a student’s sexual orientation or gender expression at school could lead to dangerous situations of abuse or neglect if the parents disapprove. Lang said the bill was intended to give an option for school officials to not inform parents and instead file a DCYF report if abuse is likely.

But Chris Erchull, staff attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), said the bill as currently written does not allow school staff the option to stop informing parents, even if they file the DCYF report.

In an interview last week, Lang said he listened to some of the concerns and will be making tweaks to the bill in an upcoming amendment.

Lang plans to add language to make clear that if teachers suspect abuse or harm could result, they do not need to disclose the information to parents, as long as they file a report with DCYF.

And Lang said he would narrow the bill to apply to certified school staff, such as teachers and administrators, and not other staff members like bus drivers or custodians.

“I heard what people said,” he said. “I’m adjusting accordingly – the things I think are reasonable requests.”

Linds Jakows, an advocate who experienced their own retaliation from their father after being involuntarily outed in high school, said the bill would disrupt a delicate process.

“Many LGBTQ young people feel a strong need to come out to peers first, regardless of whether or not their parents are affirming,” Jakows said. “… This bill doesn’t explicitly name situations related to trans or LGBTQ youth like last year’s bill, but we know the forced outing will be the same.”

The bill is likely to spur months of acrimonious testimony and contentious floor votes. To Lang, the bill is simply about strengthening communication.

“I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that when we talk about trusting adults in the school system, the trust is between the parent and the teacher and the parent and the school system,” Lang said “… And so this bill seeks to make sure that that trust is not eroded.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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