Education Officials, Lawmakers Face Pushback at ‘Parental Rights’ Community Discussion

Complaints and concerns dominated a Sept. 20 virtual session held by the Montana Office of Public Instruction on two laws reshaping requirements for the state’s public schools

By Denali Sagner
A jar of pencils in a classroom at Fair-Mont-Egan School in Kalispell on March 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Republican lawmakers and officials from the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) on Wednesday night faced pushback from parents, educators and transgender Montanans during a presentation on two “parental rights” bills passed by the 2023 Montana Legislature. 

During the fourth installment in a series of virtual “community discussions,” OPI Chief Legal Counsel Rob Stutz, alongside OPI Director of Family Engagement Jenna McKinney, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, and Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, sought to present to attendees Senate Bill 518 and House Bill 676, education laws brought by Manzella and Seekins-Crowe, respectively. Both bills outline a number of fundamental rights held by parents concerning upbringing of their children and restrict the abilities of teachers, administrators and school nurses to direct the instruction and medical care of schoolchildren absent of direct parental consent. The new legislation, which was born out of the increasingly powerful “parental rights” movement, faced opposition in the Legislature from educators and civil rights groups who raised concerns about restrictions on teachers and possible infringements on the rights of LGBTQ+ children.

Throughout the course of the hour-long presentation, Stutz, Manzella and Seekins-Crowe fielded queries from the audience that called into question how school districts are expected to implement the two laws, and whether or not that implementation will open the door to discrimination against marginalized youth.

Manzella’s Senate Bill 518 requires school districts to adopt policies that “promote the involvement of parents” in their children’s education. Required policies include those that allow parents to inspect curriculum and withdraw students from any instruction they deem offensive, as well as policies that require parental permission for students to go by a preferred name or pronoun, or to join an extracurricular activity.

Attendees voiced a number of concerns about the provisions in Senate Bill 518 that regard pronoun use and withdrawal from instruction parents deem offensive.

“Being a transgender person in the state of Montana myself, I have concerns regarding outing transgender students because their parents are unsupportive of them. Has anybody taken into consideration what this is going to do with their mental health as a student in grade school?” one attendee asked.

In response to the attendee’s question, Stutz read directly from the bill text and then said, “Really, your question, I think it’s down to a local issue for school districts about how each school district is going to address the implementation of those policy requirements. So, I don’t have an answer for you. That answer could vary from district to district. But it’s a question that will be addressed at the local level or perhaps at those statewide school board organizations.”

The Beacon later asked Stutz to clarify his statement that school districts will have flexibility in implementing policies around preferred pronouns, given that the law requires districts to adopt “procedures by which a parent shall provide written consent before the parent’s child uses a pronoun that does not align with the child’s sex.”

“Certainly, there are limits to the policy that can be adopted under the legislation, but that policy ultimately would be adopted by the school boards of trustees. Trustees have meetings that are subject to the open meeting requirements and the public input requirements. You know, what that procedure looks like … can vary from district to district. Whether it will or not, I can’t say,” he said. “I’m saying that the particular policy isn’t required, but there are particular requirements that have to be addressed by the policy.”

The state Capitol rotunda. Beacon File Photo

Regarding parents’ ability to withdraw students from lessons, another attendee asked: “If we have 10 parents that really want to individualize instruction for their children with things that they find offensive, are there any provisions at the state to reduce the size of classes so teachers have more time to address these individual requests? Or are we expecting teachers with classes of 30 kids, now, to be able to accommodate this? And how much time are you believing it will take, additionally, for teachers to meet the needs of parents for an average class?”

Manzella responded to the attendee by reading the bill text aloud, and then stated that the legislation “should not create any additional work.”

As OPI officials moved on to Seekins-Crowe’s House Bill 676, meeting attendees began to flood the Zoom chat with questions, many of which challenged both the intention and implementation of the two bills.

In introducing her bill, Seekins-Crowe said, “I had parents who were very concerned and coming to me and stating that there were decisions being made for their children without their consent, without their knowledge, and that they were very concerned that this was happening in a variety of different modes, not just within our schools, but other entities that were making those decisions.”

The majority of pushback surrounding House Bill 676 pertained to statutes in the bill that require parental consent for medical and mental healthcare in schools. House Bill 676 struck language from existing Montana code that allowed health professionals to provide nonemergency services to minors for conditions that would endanger their health or life “if services would be delayed by obtaining consent from spouse, parent, parents, or legal guardian.” The law also repealed existing law that allowed mental health providers to offer counseling when it was “urgent in the opinion of the physician or psychologist” because of “danger to the life, safety, or property of a minor or of another person or persons” if “the consent of the spouse, parent, custodian, or guardian of the minor cannot be obtained within a reasonable time to offset the danger to life or safety.”

When asked by Stutz to explain the decision to strike the statute that allows for emergency mental health care without parental consent, Seekins-Crowe said, “No, I don’t need to deal with that at this time.”

As Seekins-Crowe and Stutz discussed the bill, attendees asked a series of increasingly aggrieved questions in the chat.

Students head to class on the first day of school at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“How can counselors provide mental health care to students who may be suffering from abuse at home, if they have to notify parents first?” one attendee wrote.

“Students come into the counseling or nurse’s office all day long to disclose a problem whether medical or mental health. At what point does that conversation become an infraction of this bill? When can a counselor or nurse become implicated for a crime?” wrote another.

“I trust the trained professionals in the buildings to triage the issue, and contact me in the event of anything going on with the child. Will this bill prevent the professional teachers, counselors, and nurses from addressing any issue my child has in a timely fashion? The possibility frightens me,” another added.

Others questioned whether or not the increased requirements for parental notification would put students at risk who may be facing abuse at home.

“I’m not going to deny there are children who are growing up in very risky situations, and we need to protect them as well, but not at the risk of taking away our families and taking away parents’ rights,” Seekins-Crowe said.

The Sept. 20 session was the latest in a series of community discussions where OPI officials offered confusing and oftentimes contradictory explanations of the laws reshaping Montana’s public education system. Early sessions covered charter schools, obscenity and religion in the classroom and special education.

OPI will continue with the community discussion series on Oct. 25, when officials will discuss House Bill 361, titled “Provide that use of a name and sex by a student is not discrimination,” and House Bill 504, titled “Revise school laws to require trustees to adopt a grievance policy.”

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