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Arizona bill would punish teachers for keeping student confidences from parents

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PHOENIX — Teachers who keep certain student confidences from their parents — like a disclosure the youth is gay — can be punished by the state, a House panel voted Tuesday.

HB 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 the measure specifically bars withholding evidence from parents about a student’s “purported gender identity” or a request to transition if that identity “is incongruous with the student’s biological sex.”

Teachers that fail to call a parent could lose their certification. And parents can sue school districts that don’t provide them with that information.

Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, who is sponsoring the measure, said he is mainly targeting surveys given to students without the consent of their parents. He told members of the House Education Committee those questions can include personal information of families, such as how many guns there are at home and whether their parents get along.

But it was the language about keeping secrets — and the penalties against parents and schools — that caused some concern, even among some of the Republicans on the panel.

The sponsor said nothing in the legislation affects existing laws that require teachers and counselors to report suspected cases of child abuse to police and other authorities. But Rep. Joel John, R-Arlington, said there may be situations where a student is just more comfortable confiding in a teacher with the admonition “please don’t tell my parents.”

Kaiser, however, said it is simple: If it doesn’t rise to the level of reportable abuse, then the parents should be notified, regardless of the issue.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who teaches high school math, said she understands the desire to keep parents involved. She said, though, that it’s not that simple.

For example, she said, a student may come to her and say she is pregnant, information she has not disclosed to parents.

“My advice is always to talk to them,” Udall said. But she said she didn’t want to end up facing discipline if she didn’t immediately call the parent and instead gave the child some time to do it.

But it was the question of things like sexual orientation and transgender issues that caused the most concern of some who testified against the measure.

There is data to show that transgender children in particular face an increased risk of harm if their parents find out, said Russell Toomey, an associate professor of family students and human development at the University of Arizona.

And there is data to show that these students are more likely to wind up homeless or commit suicide, he said.

Those allegations drew questions from Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley.

“It seems like you’re driving a wedge between my children and myself,” he said. And he said that the legislation is about a lot more than gay and transgender children.

“There are many other problems I want to know about as a parent,” he said.

Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said that is based on a false assumption of family support.

“Only one third of LGBTQ youths found that their homes were LBGTQ-affirming,” Hernandez said.

“The place where they found the most affirmation was online,” Hernandez continued. “But the second place was school.”

And he said those who say they don’t see an issue of telling parents are “mocking or trivializing the experience of LGBTQ students.”

Udall, however, said she has to side with requiring disclosure.

She acknowledged that there are situations where parents are going to react badly to such information. But Udall said that withholding it denies parents the opportunity to be supportive.

“That is the parent’s responsibility,” she said.

The measure, which was approved by the Republican-dominated panel on a party-line 6-4 vote, now needs approval of the full House. But John, who went along, said he may seek changes, particularly in the language about teachers outing students over the sexual orientation or gender identity, if they want his vote.

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