Legislature revives stalled bill targeting gender issues at schools

Legislature revives stalled bill targeting gender issues at schools

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By Rose Hoban

During their careers in theater and teaching theater arts, Paulette and John Marty have met, worked with and mentored plenty of people who identify as LGBTQ.

“We have always expressed support for queer and transgender students, and worked with many students, and have for years,” Paulette said. 

As educators, the couple both say that students need teachers they can trust to talk with about challenging topics. Paulette said that a trusted teacher at school can help a kid who’s wrestling with their sexuality or gender identity find a sense of acceptance and relief from inner turmoil. 

“Those teachers are not turning them against their parents,” she said. “They’re just creating a space where they feel comfortable being who they are.” 

This dynamic is more than theoretical for the Martys. A few years ago, one of the couple’s children came to them and said they wanted to start the process of transitioning. 

“Our child first tried it out with peers at school, and then with educators, and then came to us, and was still really nervous, talking to us and telling us,” she said. 

“Their sister knew before we found out,” John said. “Even though, you know, we’d be very supportive of it, they were still much more nervous about it with us than with anyone else.”

It was the experience of their child, now 18 years old, that brought the Martys to the General Assembly on Tuesday from their home in Boone to protest a series of bills targeting transgender youth. Their experiences as educators also informed their protest: Paulette carried a sign reading “Trust teachers” as she walked through the Legislative Building.

Shows a man and a woman holding up signs. Her sign reads Trust teachers! and his sign reads Trans Youth Belong
Paulette and John Marty say they’ve always been supportive of their LGBTQ students. But the issue became really real for them when one of their children decided to transition. They say their child found support at school before coming home to talk to them. Credit: Rose Hoban

Senate Bill 49, called a Parents Bill of Rights, revives proposed legislation from the previous legislative session that would compel educators from kindergarten through high school to notify parents if a child asked school personnel to use other pronouns or other names for them. The bill, which passed the Senate in February, had been sitting in committee. It was suddenly revived last week at a contentious committee hearing where opponents were not given an opportunity to speak. 

Critics say these types of laws can hurt LGBTQ students by forcibly outing them to their families, even if those families are not accepting of their identities.

With the possibility of financial penalties in the bill, the measure could put teachers and counselors in an ethical quandary as they look to balance their obligations to their students and the need to abide by state law. Opponents of the bills also say such legislation could harm the mental health of kids during an emotionally challenging time of their lives. 

Sensitive conversations

With Senate Bill 49, North Carolina joins at least 31 other states considering legislation centered on education and so-called bills of rights for parents, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. At least a dozen states — North Carolina among them — have sections in their bills that would require teachers to share information with the parents of a child who is questioning their gender identity or sexuality. 

Four states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana — passed bills relating to parental rights in 2022. Many of those bills focused on giving parents access to information about curriculum being taught, offering them the ability to opt out of sex education and, as in North Carolina, focusing on gender and sexuality. 

“As a school counselor, we have all kinds of kids who come with lots of personal issues, including, and oftentimes, gender identity issues, because middle school is that time of development, when young people are seeking some identity of who they are as a person and how they fit in,” said Cathy Zizzi, a middle school school counselor who’s worked for 15 years in schools across the Winston-Salem area. “Their sense of identity can be one of the greatest stressors they have during that time in their lives.”

Zizzi said that she frequently had kids coming to her to talk about internal struggles, and many of them turned to her because their family members were not supportive. 

“We know from current research that students who struggle with gender identity and do not have supportive adults in their lives are . . . What is it? Three, maybe five times more likely to die by suicide?” Zizzi said. “Because they are not getting the support they need.”

Often, she said, school counselors are the only adults that kids can talk with without involving a parent who could further aggravate an already delicate situation. Those same kids, Zizzi added, can be subject to emotional — and sometimes physical — abuse at home for being different.

To disclose that kind of information without a teen’s permission, Zizzi added, would go against the ethical guidelines promulgated by the American School Counselor Association

But Sen. Amy Galey (R-Burlington), a primary sponsor of the bill, told the House Education K-12 committee last week that when it came to rights, a parent’s rights trump those of the child, even if a child is asking for privacy about a delicate situation such as gender identity. 

“In the United States, generally children don’t have rights versus their parents. Parents have the right to educate and give them moral training, and to provide for the physical safety of children — unless that parent is abusive or neglectful and otherwise enters the system for social services,” Galey told the committee.

Medical privacy rights

Galey claimed the bill wouldn’t change some of the medical privacy rights that young people already have. Currently, a teen can consent to treatment without parental notice when it comes to receiving treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, substance use or many mental health issues. 

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of concern that that statute was being abused by the medical community,” Galey said. “And I think there’s good public policy reasons for those to be in place. So the bill doesn’t really change the medical consent, it elaborates on it, and it makes it clear.”

But the bill would forbid schools from having policies allowing any school personnel to withhold information about a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.

Zizzi defended what she and her peers do and noted that she always encourages a young person to talk with family. 

“What we talk about is confidential,” Zizzi said. “I always explain what that means to students when I meet with them, that unless they describe self harm, harm that’s being done to them, or their intent to do harm to someone else, or if I get … subpoenaed — in those four cases, I have to violate the trust. Otherwise, what we talk about is confidential and private.

“I don’t know how you could do my profession without adhering to that.”

The bill also provides for penalties for school personnel or school systems, and it allows for a parent to sue if they get the sense that school personnel have not shared information they deserve to know.

“The parent may either notify the State Board of Education and request a parental concern hearing, or the parent may bring an action against the public school unit for declaratory judgment,” Galey said. “And the court may award injunctive relief, as well as reasonable attorneys fees and costs to the parent.” 

shows a man in a white coat standing at a podium and talking through a microphone. A sign on the podium reads, "Protect trans youth health care" while others behind him hold signs reading: Protect LGBTQ Youth, Trans Youth Belong and Tust Doctors, not politicians.
Riley Smith, a family physician who works in Durham, provides gender-affirming care for adolescents. He said that as a queer teen in a North Carolina school, teachers were key in helping him feel like his experience could be “normal thing.” Credit: Rose Hoban

Medical groups unite in opposition

To Riley Smith, a family doctor from Durham, singling out gender identity issues in this bill seems like piling on, especially in the context of other bills targeting transgender people that have been moving through the General Assembly.

“I can’t tell you the number of kids I’ve had in tears in my office and parents who come in just wondering like, ‘What on earth are we supposed to do?’ It feels like it’s changing by the minute,” Smith said. “If these bills pass — and not actually knowing what these bills are gonna look like —  it makes it really hard to do our jobs and to take care of these kids.”

At least 30 medical associations and groups across the country have come out against such laws, including, most recently, the American Medical Association. That organization overwhelmingly affirmed a resolution at its annual meeting in early June stating: “it is the responsibility of the medical community to speak out in support of evidence-based care. Medical decisions should be made by patients, their relatives and health care providers, not politicians.”

Smith said that when he was growing up as a queer kid in North Carolina and heard a teacher talk about her wife as a normal thing, it was “powerful.” 

“For teachers to feel like they can’t bring their true selves to school out of concern that some parent’s going to say something to someone and it’s going to escalate, or, you know, that somehow it’s different to talk about queer relationships than it is to talk about straight relationships,” Smith said. “It’s not true, and it’s harmful.”

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