You would think, after the House Bill 2 backlash that occurred in 2016, North Carolina Republicans might think twice before pouring gasoline on the flames of divisive social issues.
Republican lawmakers jumped headfirst into the culture war again Tuesday, attempting to police public education with what they call a “parents’ bill of rights.” The legislation, which was introduced Tuesday, bears a remarkable resemblance to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill recently passed in Florida. That bill sparked nationwide criticism, as well as retaliation from major companies like Disney. In the months since, more than a dozen states have proposed similar legislation.
The bill’s sponsors were quick to tell everyone that their version is not as bad as the Florida bill. But it is almost as bad, and like the Florida law, North Carolina’s version does little else but hurt students.
The bill proposed by North Carolina Republicans would prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from being included in the curriculum in kindergarten through third grade.
It also would likely result in the forced outing of LGBTQ students by requiring parents to be notified if a student chooses to change their pronouns, makes use of school counseling services or even just discusses matters related to their “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being” with a teacher or counselor.
And it would allow parents to sue the school if they feel their parental rights have been violated — and schools would have to pay the court costs. Other “parental rights” enumerated in the bill include the right to object to textbooks and supplementary materials, the right to see which books their child checked out from the school library and more.
Republicans don’t like that it’s being framed as another example of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. At a press conference Tuesday, Senate leader Phil Berger insisted “there is no attempt to squelch folks from talking about things.” Students would still be allowed to ask questions about sexuality and gender identity, and teachers would be allowed to answer them. However, teachers would be expected to tell parents if that happens.
“If my child asked a question about something like that, I think I would want to know about it,” Berger said. “And I think it would be incumbent upon the school to notify a parent that those are the kinds of inquiries that a child is making.”
But it’s hard to see how their bill wouldn’t have the same effect. If a teacher has to report that a student asked about something, that does, in its own way, limit discussion. Students who know that such conversations will be reported to parents may feel that silence is the better option.
And if teachers aren’t sure where “discussion” ends and “instruction” begins — it would appear, for example, that a kindergarten teacher couldn’t read students a story where the character happens to have two moms or two dads — then they will stay away from materials that even indirectly acknowledge homosexuality or gender identity.
The result is that they won’t say gay. Or transgender. Instead of education, the bill engages in erasure.
For LGBTQ students, especially those who are terrified of coming out to their families, school can be a safe space. LGBTQ youth are already at increased risk of suicide, and more often than not, being able to confide in that one teacher or that one counselor can be life-saving. This bill would strip them of that. How can they trust any adult at school, knowing that nothing they say can be kept in confidence?