COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – “Gender” and “sexuality” do not appear anywhere in a proposed bill dubbed the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” but they were on state representatives’ tongues Tuesday.
Introduced by Reps. D.J. Swearingen (R-Huron) and Sara Carruthers (R-Hamilton), House Bill 8 would affirm existing laws on the right to view a child’s academic and medical records while requiring schools to notify parents before teaching about “sexually explicit content” or offering health services to their children.
“This is a commonsense bill that simply acknowledges the fundamental role that parents play in the life of their children,” Swearingen said at a committee hearing. “It is statistically undeniable that when parents are involved in their kids’ lives, kids succeed.”
Originally introduced at the end of the last General Assembly, the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” would require public schools “promote parental involvement in the public school system” through, among other things, notifying parents about materials including “sexually explicit content” and allowing them to review such material to determine whether their child should be provided with alternative coursework.
The bill would also prohibit school staff from encouraging students to withhold information from their parents about their mental, emotional or physical health and would require schools to develop “health care plans” with students’ parents if they intend to provide health services. School staff would have to inform parents about changes in their child’s health needs unless it could lead to abuse, abandonment or neglect.
Carruthers referenced perpetrators of deadly school shootings as the type of students “we’ve all seen in schools” that exhibited behavioral or mood changes before acting violently. Schools should have the legal obligation to report such changes to parents, Carruthers said.
But committee members had other concerns on their minds.
Rep. Gary Click (R-Vickery) said the bill is similar to something he wanted to introduce himself but wondered whether the language could be modified to more explicitly affirm that a child questioning their gender or sexual identity must be reported to parents.
Agreeing with Click, Rep. Josh Williams (R-Oregon) asked if parents’ moral beliefs also ought to not be used to determine the threat of abuse upon disclosure. Williams said that otherwise, the law would “enshrine what school districts are already doing” by not disclosing a child’s gender or sexual identity to a parent who will not affirm their identity or allow gender-affirming care.
Teachers, social workers and other school personnel refrain from disclosing students’ LGBTQ+ status or exploration to parents who may be unsupportive because it’s best practice as outlined by professional standards, said Maria Bruno, the public policy director of Equality Ohio.
The National Association of Social Workers, for example, notes in its LGBTQ+ guide that young LGBTQ+ people “experience high levels of family rejection” and expressly recommends against disclosing patients’ identities without their permission. A guide to supporting transgender students made by the National Education Association and other organizations has a subsection on navigating “unsupportive parents or caregivers,” emphasizing that school officials should ask the student whether their family is accepting before disclosure.
HB8 mirrors legislation introduced in several states under the name “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” each consigning differing levels of curriculum review to parents and all claiming to reestablish and proliferate parental involvement in public education. Most recently, a bill introduced March 1 at the federal level would require schools to provide lists of all books and reading materials in their libraries and to notify parents about any violent incident at school resulting in an injury.
“I do not want the parent-child relationship to slip away in Ohio, and this bill is just making sure that stays intact,” Swearingen said.
Lawmakers lobbed multiple questions at the sponsors about hypothetical scenarios – from Rep. Mary Lightbody (D-Westerville) inquiring whether she’d be able to refer to sex organs by name in a biology class to Rep. Joseph Miller (D-Lorain) wondering how sociology teachers would be able to teach about marriage, divorce and domestic violence.
The sponsors reiterated that the bill was intentionally general, designed to foster a stronger relationship between parents and teachers. Equality Ohio’s opposition to the bill is not an opposition to parental rights or involvement in education, Bruno said, but the organization and LGBTQ+ rights groups are worried about the bill’s lack of specificity being used as a “pretext to discriminate.”
Swearingen said the bill’s goal is to encourage teachers to defer to notifying parents whenever something is “on the line” or the teacher is uncertain if a topic is sexually explicit. Bruno said that vagueness is a concern.
“In the absence of specific guidance, it creates a chilling effect and culture of fear,” Bruno said. “If teachers don’t know where the line is, they won’t get in the direction of the line.”