Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

Arizona Republicans are backing a measure that would discipline teachers and open them up to lawsuits if they don’t tell parents everything a student tells them—including if the student confides that he or she is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

According to the Arizona Mirror, 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, which is sponsored by Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, would allow parents to sue school districts if teachers don’t comply. The bill also aims to allow parents additional access to certain medical records.

Kaiser 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.

But out gay Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson has pushed back against the bill.

Daniel Hernandez wants changes made to HB 2161

“I still feel this bill is not ready for prime time,” Rep. Hernandez 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’m not sure what education group I’d go to, because they’d be against this," Kaiser told Hernandez.

Kaiser also consulted Family Watch International, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group. That group is backing another piece of legislation that would ban books that have “sexually explicit” content and that critics say would effectively make it illegal to teach about homosexuality.

Punishing Teachers

Supporters of HB2161 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 — Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction 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.

Although the bill cleared the committee 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. He suggested that the changes to the bill will be in the area of outing students to people who are essentially hostile towards them.

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