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Arizona Republicans this week lined up behind a measure that would discipline teachers and open them up to lawsuits if they don’t tell parents everything a student tells them — even if the student confides that he or she is gay or transgender.
The legislation, House Bill 2161, would make it illegal for a government employee to withhold information that is “relevant to the physical, emotional or mental health of the parent’s child,” and specifically prevents teachers from withholding information about a student’s “purported gender identity” or a request to transition to a gender other than the “student’s biological sex.”
The bill would allow parents to sue school districts if teachers don’t comply.
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Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, the bill’s sponsor, argued in the House Education Committee on Jan. 25 that the aim of the legislation is to reign in surveys sent out by schools that have made headlines in a number of states and locally. The bill also aims to allow parents additional access to certain medical records.
“I still feel this bill is not ready for prime time,” Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said, adding that he felt there was some merit to schools surveying students. “This bill could’ve been done without this inclusion or without the trivialization of transgender children.”
Kaiser initially said the bill was created via a “stakeholder group” and his “own inherent passion” for the issue. But when Hernandez pressed him on which stakeholders were involved in drafting the bill, Kaiser admitted he didn’t work with education groups or teachers, but with anti-LGBTQ advocacy groups — chief among them the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian lobbying organization that has pushed numerous controversial and bigoted bills since forming in 1995. CAP holds sway with most Republican lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey, and is widely considered one of the most powerful lobbying groups at the state Capitol.
“I know you have a long-standing (dislike) of that organization. I understand where the bait was in that question,” Kaiser told Hernandez, who is gay. “I’m not sure what education group I’d go to, because they’d be against this.”
Another stakeholder that Kaiser consulted is Family Watch International, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group. That group also has its fingerprints on another piece of legislation that would ban any books that have “sexually explicit” content and that critics say would effectively make it illegal to teach about homosexuality.
Supporters of the bill said it was necessary to punish teachers in order to bring transparency to schools, who they said have been asking “inappropriate questions.” Some said the $500 fine for school districts in the bill’s language was not large enough, a thought echoed by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, who said that was a “drop in the bucket” for a school district and asked Kaiser if he’d agree to increase the amount.
Jeanne Casteen, the executive director of the Arizona Secular Coalition and a former teacher, worried about how the reporting function of the bill would impact child abuse. Teachers are mandatory reporters, and Casteen said that every time she had to report child abuse, it was being inflicted by a parent. Under Kaiser’s bill, she said, a teacher would also have to notify the parents — the likely abusers — that the child informed them of the abuse.
“I keep hearing about parental rights, but what about the rights of these students?” Casteen said.
One of the speakers for the other side was Nicole Eidson with a parent group called “Moms for Liberty” known for frequenting Chandler Unified School District meetings and complaining about alleged racism education and training.
“I’ve been hearing a lot about that kids have rights, but in my household, I gotta say, it is a dictatorship,” Eidson said, adding that schools have “no right” to put forward what is “right” for her to do in her household.
Although the bill cleared the committee along party-lines with Republican support, Rep. Joel John, R-Arlington, acknowledged there may be situations where a student may be more comfortable confiding with their teacher than with a parent.
John said that Kaiser will need to seek changes to the bill, specifically the issues relating to outing students, if he wants his continued support.
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