Educators, child advocates and a social worker testified against the N.H. House-passed “Parents’ Rights Bill” in a Senate committee Tuesday, saying the legislation’s language is so broad it could disrupt the classroom and put children in danger.
Proponents say House Bill 1431 would foster better communication between parents and teachers and protect people’s ability to raise their children as they see fit without undue interference.
The Senate Judiciary Committee did not immediately vote on whether to recommend the bill for passage by the full Senate.
The measure says a parent has the right to “direct the education and care of his or her minor child.” It says school employees could be subject to disciplinary action if they encourage kids to keep information from their parents.
Upon request, schools would have 10 days to provide a long list of information about policies, curriculum and procedures. Violations of provisions in the 1,800-word bill would be punishable by a Class B misdemeanor.
Arguing in favor of the bill, Rep. Jeffrey Greeson, R-Wentworth, said parental rights are being infringed upon in New Hampshire.
“Parents are being told they should not be allowed to make decisions about their children’s education,” he told the committee. “Just take a look at all the efforts to prevent education freedom accounts, or access to curricula, or school choice.
“Parents are told they don’t have the right to interfere with decisions about children’s medical care.”
He characterized HB 1431 as an “11th-hour effort to prevent the complete destruction of the family.”
While the bill focuses on parental rights, many of which are already codified in state law, some who testified against it said the rights of children should not be ignored.
Keith Kuenning, director of advocacy for Waypoint (formerly Child and Family Services), said any expansion of rights for good parents could also give more latitude and opportunity for abuse by bad parents.
“I would have to say, the thing that has surprised me over the last 10 years is what parents can do to their children,” he told the committee. “It is chilling what some parents do to their children.
“They slam them against walls. They break their arms. They try to starve them to death. They throw them out windows. And they murder them.”
A provision in the bill would prohibit public employees from encouraging a child to withhold information from a parent who is not suspected of a criminal offense against that child.
State Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said this provision seems to go against the requirement that teachers report to the N.H. Division for Children, Youth and Families when they have a suspicion of abuse or neglect.
“This seems to say you can’t do that if you don’t inform the parent first,” he said.
John DeJoie, representing the New Hampshire chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said this provision in the bill also troubles him because young people talk to school social workers about a range of issues they may not want to discuss with their parents.
He said children often turn to these staffers and teachers to talk about family fights, drug dependence and even thoughts of suicide.
“What this bill will do is have a chilling effect on the conversations and the comfort of children in speaking with a trusted adult,” DeJoie said. “What this bill sets up is a situation where a parent can allege the social worker advised the child to withhold information without evidence.”
Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers-NH, said it’s important for parents to be involved in the education of their children, but that there are limits.
She said the bill’s provision for a parent to direct their kids’ education could come into conflict with the desires of other parents, or run counter to a school’s responsibility to provide a good education to all students.
“Those sorts of policy disagreements should be worked out at a school board, not in the classroom,” Howes said.
She said the bill would cause more division in the community and more political interference in the classroom.
Rep. Paul Terry, R-Alton, is the chief sponsor of HB 1431. The bill will be considered by the full Senate after the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on whether or not to recommend its passage.