Parental bill of rights revived by committee; Governor vows to veto bill

A “parental bill of rights” that legal experts say could violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws is headed for a final vote after a committee of conference led by House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn) concurred with changes to HB 1431 on Thursday. 

The bill was expected to die earlier this week when the original committee of conference members met and ultimately couldn’t reach an agreement. But on Wednesday, there was a surprise announcement that the committee would meet Thursday morning at 9 a.m., just a few hours before the deadline. Several members of the original committee who had expressed concerns about some of the language in the bill were replaced on the new committee. 

Governor Sununu has issued a statement vowing to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, according to Ethan DeWitt of the New Hampshire Bulletin.  

The original version of HB 1431, which was passed by the House in March, was amended by the Senate to include a mandate that schools develop policies to inform parents “promptly” about a number of developments with their child, including any action taken around “gender expression or identity.” 

Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, the head of the state’s Civil Rights Unit, told the committee on Tuesday that he was concerned about language requiring the school to promptly notify parents about conversations related to gender identity – language that could essentially force schools to “out” students. “This may deny students the policies designed to protect them,” he said, referring to laws adopted by the state in 2019 that prohibit discrimination in public education. “The language specifically targets students based upon their gender identity or expression.”

Numerous individuals and organizations contacted committee members to voice concerns about how the bill, as amended by the Senate, would affect a young person’s ability to confide in school staff about issues including gender identity and abuse. 

“I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails from parents who are opposed to this bill… Let’s explore the unintended consequences of this bill in a thoughtful way,” Sen. Becky Whitley (D-Hopkinton) urged the committee on Thursday after proposing an amendment that would study the issue instead of codifying the bill into law. That amendment failed. 

Background on the bill 

Asserting that “it is a fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their minor children,” the original version of HB 1431 created a comprehensive list of parental rights in regards to education and health care services, many of which are already in law. 

The Senate version, and the latest amendment, expand on that proposal and would require school districts to adopt policies mandating that parents be notified of “any action by school authorities relating to the student pursuant to school policies” pertaining to a number of issues, including “gender expression or identity.” It also mandates that parents be notified of any counseling services provided to students by the school. 

After passing the House and Senate, the bill landed in a committee of conference after the House rejected the floor amendments made by the Senate. The committee could not reach an agreement on the bill on Tuesday, with the majority determining that there were too many issues that needed to be addressed first.

 “A lot of new information has been brought forward about this bill,” Representative Kimberly Rice (R-Dover) said during the committee meeting on Tuesday. “I just want to make sure that we’re not setting kids up to self-harm, to feel they have no one to talk to.” She was replaced by House Speaker Sherman Packard (R-Londonderry) on Thursday. Representative Osborne replaced Representative Denise Smith (R-Pelham) and Senator Harold French (R-Franklin) replaced Senator Whitley after the meeting in order to secure a unanimous vote on the signed report.

The new committee acceded to the Senate’s position and allowed the bill to move forward.

It now goes to the House and Senate floor on Thursday, May 26, for a final vote. Neither chamber can amend the bill: They must vote on it as is. Then, if passed by both chambers, it will go to Governor Sununu’s desk, though he’s vowed to veto it. 

Removing community protections for children

There was heavy support for the House version of the bill, which centralized existing laws so that families have a clear understanding of their rights. 

“I want to know what’s going on,” one parent testified before the House Children and Family Law Committee in February. “We should have something in place between the school, the staff, and the parents.” 

But there has been an outpouring of concern with the Senate’s version and how it would affect a young person’s ability to confide in school staff about issues including gender identity and abuse. 

“While I believe that parents should and do have the responsibility to make decisions for their children, this legislation threatens civil society’s responsibility to protect all children from harm,” a retired doctor said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This legislation undermines society’s responsibility to intervene when abuse and neglect occurs and potentially interferes with educational and public health measures which permit children to live up to their full potential.”

“Trusted adults such as teachers and school counselors, among other staff, can be important sounding boards and can help guide young people to safe and healthy ways to confront their questions and fears,” Keith Kuenning, Advocacy Attorney for Waypoint, a Manchester non-profit providing a variety of services for children and families, wrote in a letter to the committee of conference, which was signed by members of more than a dozen organizations that work with or advocate for children and families. “Yet, by requiring immediate disclosure to parents about any school club or extracurricular activities, school counselor visits, and changes in gender identity or expression, this bill would sacrifice those important relationships and undermine efforts to create an affirming learning environment for all students.”

The timing of the bill is especially troubling, the NH Charitable Foundation wrote in a letter submitted to the committee of conference: “Young people in the Granite State are reporting higher-than-ever levels of mental health challenges – an area of great concern to our community and an area of priority for the Charitable Foundation. Our children need to know they can rely on trusted adults – parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, clergy – to be in their corner and help them grow into their full potential.”

Other states pursuing similar legislation 

The bill is one of 11 such proposals introduced around the country this year. New Hampshire’s version is based on boilerplate language proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative lobbying group that provides model legislation for state governments across the country. 

The most controversial version has been Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay bill,” which also mandates disclosure when students discuss gender and sexuality with school staff. The legislation has received national attention and concern for the safety and well-being of students. 

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