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Proposed Bill Would Expand Parents' Rights, But Critics Say It Goes Too Far

Robert White
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Texas Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) introduced the bill.

A proposed bill from a Tarrant County lawmaker is causing a stir in education circles. Texas Sen. Konni Burton said the bill is intended to bolster a parent’s right to information about his or her child. But critics say it’s vaguely worded, and some worry it could put LGBT kids at risk.

From the moment Senate Bill 242 was filed, it took less than a day before LGBT advocates were howling. The bill basically broadens and adds teeth to a section of the Texas Education Code that requires schools to give parents access to their child’s school records.

Chuck Smith of the advocacy group Equality Texas slammed the bill for putting LGBT kids who are coming out of the closet at risk if they tell a teacher, but are worried about coming out to their parents.

"If the student feels that they would be abused or rendered homeless by the disclosure,” to their parents,” Smith asked, “shouldn’t the teacher have the ability to consider that information in whether or not there would be disclosure [to the parent]?”

Smith said that under Senate Bill 242, teachers might have no choice but to “out” LGBT kids to their parents if those parents are asking about their kids. And that could have huge consequences: Young people who are LGBT face an elevated risk of being kicked out of their homes or abused, Smith said. One national study found 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.

“It would be backwards to force or require teachers to disclose information knowing that the disclosure of that information would have negative consequences,” Smith said.

Texas Sen. Konni Burton, who wrote the bill, said that’s not the bill's intent. The Colleyville Republican declined an interview request, but sent a statement saying “the distortion and outright false portrayal of this legislation has prevented any serious discussion.”

Burton also said the bill maintains provisions that shield school officials from telling parents when there’s been an allegation that a child has been abused or neglected.

In a post on her website, Burton said she wrote the bill after the Fort Worth school district introduced a set of controversial transgender student guidelines that she thought violated parents’ rights.

Zeb Pent, who helped form the group Stand for Fort Worth to oppose the district’s guidelines, said he appreciates Burton’s bill.

“We support a parent’s right to know. We feel that the school systems do not work without a healthy family unit,” Pent said, adding that he thinks it’s a false narrative to argue that the type of parents who go out of their way to ask about their children’s education and school activities would be the kind of parents that would abuse their children.

Last spring, when the Fort Worth school district introduced a set of guidelines to help schools navigate issues related to transgender students and protect them from bullying, the guidelines faced a fierce and immediate backlash.

In one section that drew the ire of some parents and politicians, school personnel were instructed to keep “a student’s actual or perceived gender identity and expression private” and to only share it on a “need-to-know basis or as the student directs,” including with a student’s parent or guardian.

The Texas attorney general weighed in, arguing that the provision violated the state’s education code, and the school district eventually changed the guidelines.

A spokesman for Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner said in a statement that he believes both the original and revised guidelines followed the law.

“We saw the attorney general uphold the law,” Zeb Pent said. “The very fact that we had the Fort Worth ISD pass an eight-page mandate that attempted to circumvent the law, that’s why we see such a great need for legislation like this to clarify the law.”

While the debate rages outside the classroom, the proposed legislation has left educators inside schools scratching their heads. Exactly how Senate Bill 242 would change things is not clear, according to Paul Tapp. He’s a lawyer for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill. His is not the only education association hearing from its members about the bill.

“The law now said that a parent is entitled to any information regarding the school activities of a parent’s child,” said Tapp.

The Texas education code offers an extensive list of records and information about a student that must be furnished to their parents upon request, Tapp said, and has been interpreted broadly. Exactly what extra information the bill would enable parents to request is not entirely clear, he said.

Tapp said he worries that the bill might have a chilling effect on students who want to confide in a teacher or a coach or a counselor, but would choose not to.

“The most likely real outcome from this is that this is going to result in fewer conversations. And, that’s a philosophical question whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Tapp said.

Tapp said he gets both sides of the issue, but he cautions that the law is a blunt instrument, and that this bill doesn’t seem very targeted.

“Regardless of what the law is, there’s always going to be the potential for bad consequences,” Tapp said.

Over at the Texas Association of School Boards, lawyer Joy Baskin has also been puzzling over the bill. That association is also still considering its position on the legislation.

Baskin said Senate Bill 242 would require school personnel to disclose all general information about a student, which the bill clarifies to mean “personal, direct or incidental information.” Baskin said that seems boundless, and could be read to include rumors, hallway gossip and supposition.

“That definition is so expansive that it might be confusing to school employees to know when they have an obligation to contact a parent even without having had that sensitive conversation with the student,” Baskin said.

The proposed legislation would threaten school employees who withhold information with suspension or even termination.

“Taken to an extreme, there might be parents who want daily updates on all aspects of their child’s interactions at school, be they academic or social or what have you,” Baskin said, adding that it appears in the legislation that those requests would have to be honored.

It’s in the school counselor’s office, that the bill could be most have the greatest impact. But Scott Kessel said some of the debate might be missing a counselor’s perspective. Kessel supervises school counselors at Aledo ISD, and teaches counseling at Texas Christian University. He said a parents’ right-to-know doesn’t have to be in conflict with LGBT students’ needs.

“Part of what, presently, school counselors do is they try to facilitate that conversation happening between the child and the parent,” Kessel said, speaking only for himself and not for the district or TCU. “If it can’t happen between the child and the parent, then a school counselor may step in and try to mediate or try to facilitate.”

Kessel said educators are focused on helping students succeed, and that is widely understood to mean that parents are an essential part of making success happen.

“We’re not keeping secrets from parents,” he said.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.