NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A controversial parental rights bill sponsored by New Hanover representative Sen. Michael Lee is making its way through the state legislature.
On Wednesday, the state Senate’s Education/Higher Education Committee discussed the Parents’ Bill of Rights, legislation that would give parents more control over their children’s education. It is sponsored by the committee’s two Republican chairs, Lee and Sen. Amy Galey, along with committee member Sen. Lisa Barnes. This is the first piece of legislation discussed by the education committee in the 2023 session.
The new legislation addresses several demands from conservative education groups, including more parental curriculum oversight and tightened consent standards for students to participate in programs and surveys. It also contains provisions on LGBTQ pronoun usage and class discussions.
The bill is similar to another piece of legislation regarding parental rights proposed last year that passed the Senate, yet stalled in the House and was criticized by Gov. Roy Cooper. He indicated he does not support this new bill either.
“Parents are critical to the success of our schools and their participation should be welcomed and encouraged, but the last thing we need is to force the “Don’t Say Gay” culture wars on our children and our state,” Cooper said in a statement. “We know from seeing the harmful impacts of the bathroom bill how much legislation like this hurts people and costs North Carolina jobs.”
Opponents to the bill are comparing the gender curriculum provision to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits educators from “encouraging” classroom discussion on gender identity. Florida Republicans said the bill’s intention was to keep parents in the know and involved.
Several North Carolina state senators questioned Lee and Galey on why this divisive bill was a priority over other educational issues, such as teacher retention and pay.
Galey claimed the bill was not divisive and said starting with this bill indicates to the public they are being heard. While many of the bill’s components — like opting out of sex education and immunization exemption — are already covered by laws or policies, its sponsors said it was important to remind parents of their rights.
However, some opposing senators claimed the bill’s motivation was more political than based on actual need, an opinion shared by New Hanover County Schools board member Stephanie Walker. She told Port City Daily the board’s legal counsel has already briefed members on the bill’s contents.
“In my opinion, it’s a veiled attempt to kind of address those social, cultural, things that are out there,” Walker said. “It looks all shiny and packaged like it’s this parent Bill of Rights, right, when a lot of it already exists in law and policy anyway, the new things are sliding in there.”
One of those new components, and perhaps the most criticized, concerns LGBTQ students and information on gender and gender identity.
Under the bill’s provisions, parents would be notified prior to school personnel changing the pronoun used for their children and parents are entitled to view their children’s medical and well-being records. Instruction on gender identity, sexual activity, or sexuality are also prohibited from kindergarten to fourth grade.
Many senators at the committee meeting spoke against the bill, claiming it would harm LGTBQ youth who are scared to share their identity with unsupportive parents.
Lee claimed parents have the right to know so they can help their children.
“This gives the parent the ability to fulfill the responsibility the parent has,” Lee said during the meeting. “You can’t have the opportunity to do that if you don’t know.”
However, Caroline Morin, executive director at the LGBTQ Center of Cape Fear Coast, told Port City Daily on Thursday that’s not always the reality.
“It’s always an ideal situation that LGBTQ children would be loved, accepted and embraced by their families,” Morin said. “Unfortunately, we know that that’s not always the case due to a variety of factors or they don’t have education about the LGBTQ experience.”
Morin said there are “not great statistics” about LGBTQ youth being kicked out of the house or being subjected to a dangerous environment when their parents are notified of their gender or sexual identity. However, even in less extreme circumstances, the mental health toll on unsupported LGBTQ youth can be just as significant.
LGBTQ youth are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, with 45% reporting they seriously considered attempting suicide in a 2022 survey by The Trevor Project. The transgender and non-binary community faces higher rates of harassment and physical assault; 43% of transgender youth report being bullied in school.
“For many students, school is one of the only places where they feel fully safe and fully comfortable with themselves,” Morin said. “Living in a discriminatory environment, especially one you’re required to go to every day, has an adverse childhood experience.”
Lessons on gender and sexuality are not included in K-4 public school curricula, mandated by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. At Wednesday’s Senate committee meeting, Sen. Kandie Smith questioned if there was any record of those teachings in public schools. Galey responded there have been “anecdotal” reports.
The bill does exempt discussions stemming from student questions.
“It’s a sort of a redirection of a non-problem to make it seem like there’s a problem,” Morin said. “But banning accurate or inclusive curriculum on anything will not stop people from being LGBTQ or from discussing their LGBTQ experience. It will just burden those conversations with shame, danger and fear.”
A local activist for LGBTQ children, Jessica Cannon, concurred, writing an email to Sen. Lee after the bill passed favorably in the education committee.
“You took an oath to protect the citizens of our state, not to champion policies that will materially and knowingly harm them,” Cannon wrote.
Lee responded Thursday morning: “Based upon the comments in your e-mail, it appears you have not read the proposed bill.”
Lee did not respond to PCD’s interview request by press.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights extends beyond its LGBTQ provisions and into other areas of conservative concern.
The bill restricts school districts from conducting surveys on protected topics — sexuality, political beliefs, religion — without prior written consent from parents. The NHCS policy committee took up this issue last week; led by Republican Josie Barnhart, the committee voted to recommend the board amend its policy to require universal prior written consent for protected topics, where before it was only required for federal surveys.
The bill also addresses student health care, requiring staff to gain parental consent at the beginning of the year for any health service to be provided to a child. It requires health practitioners to gain permission to perform treatment on children, including X-rays, drug administration, blood transfusions, anesthetics, lab tests or any other diagnostic procedures.
The rights enumerated in the bill include allowing parents to inspect and purchase student textbooks and other instructional materials, along with their children’s standardized testing results and education requirements.
Parents would be able to review a record of their children’s library checkouts as well.
The bill outlines school systems should “establish a means for parents to object to textbooks and supplementary instructional materials consistent with the requirements.”
Walker said parents have always been able to view curriculum, state standards and instructional material and that objections are rare. She said she worries some of the logistics of complying with the bill’s requirements could bog down staff members and take away from education.
She also shared how if the argument for student rights versus parent rights leans too far in one direction, it can actually take rights away — for example, the right for transgender students to participate in middle school sports or the right to access certain books.
“The whole point of this discussion is like parent rights and this and that — well, what about the rights of those parents that do believe that it’s OK to talk about?” Walker said.
NHCS board of education Vice-Chair Pat Bradford declined a request for comment; the other six other board members did not respond by press.
On Thursday, the Parents Bill of Rights passed the Senate committee on health care and was referred to the committee on rules and operation of the Senate. If it passes with a favorable vote, it will then go to the Senate for a second reading. A third reading and passing vote will be needed to transfer to the state House of Representatives.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org