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Educators say parental rights bill could harm trust with students

State Sen. Konni Burton filed a bill that would broaden the requirements for what school officials have to share with parents, but LGBT activists say it could force educators to out gay or transgender students.

New Texas Sen. Konni Burton, c, stands with other incoming Senators during the swearing-in ceremony at the Texas Capitol Jan. 13, 2015.

A state senator’s bid to expand parental rights to information about their students is drawing spirited criticism from educators and LGBT activists who argue it does not protect students at risk of abuse if teachers or school officials out them to their families.

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, filed Senate Bill 242 this month requiring schools to share all knowledge about students if parents ask — instead of just written records and reports. If a teacher has "personal, direct or incidental knowledge," the bill requires them to share it with parents if they inquire.

While the legislation does not specifically mention lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, critics argue the language is too vague to be effective and could harm the trust between educators and students.

Education association spokespeople said Burton's bill does not allow educators to use professional judgment about disclosing sensitive information to parents.

State law already requires schools to share academic records, admissions applications, health information, teacher evaluations, behavioral reports and psychological records with parents.

Burton’s bill adds to that list “other records relating to the child’s general, physical, psychological, or emotional well-being,” unless school officials are talking with law enforcement about suspected child abuse in a student’s home.

Educators who try to hide, or encourage a student to hide, “general knowledge” from parents can be fired or suspended without pay, the bill reads. “For purposes of this section, ‘general knowledge’ means personal, direct or incidental knowledge,” it says.

Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison said he worries educators are being asked to come between parents and students.

“It’s information that could be unsubstantiated rumors, potentially,” he said. “Basically, this is asking for teachers to a certain extent to intrude into the parental-child relationship and to a more significant extent than they already do now in terms of academic records.”

TSTA has not yet taken an official position on the bill, but its members “do have concerns,” Robison said. “If a parent really has concerns about a child or doesn’t trust their child, why doesn’t the parent directly bring that up with their child?” he said. “I think most responsible parents do.”

The proposed bill is a direct response to guidelines the Fort Worth Independent School District implemented last spring to support transgender students, allowing teachers and staff to withhold information about a student’s gender identity from parents, according to Burton.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion saying the district’s officials may violate state law by keeping information from parents. So Fort Worth ISD revised the guidelines, striking that passage and instead requiring parents to be involved in developing a support plan for transgender students.

Burton wrote in a statement that Fort Worth ISD’s original guidelines “treated all parents as potentially dangerous and completely marginalized their role in their child’s life.” But, she stressed, her bill does not directly focus on sexuality or gender. And it only applies when parents ask educators for information.

"The distortion and outright false portrayal of this legislation has prevented any serious discussion on an issue, which is broadly supported, as evidenced by the reaction in my Senate district when parental rights were threatened,” she wrote to the Tribune in a separate statement.

The limits of the current law are not well understood, since there has been very little litigation around school disclosure to parents, said Paul Tapp, managing attorney for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Tapp said he advises teachers to be careful and never promise students they can keep information confidential from their parents. This bill would also require educators to tell parents anything they might overhear about their students, if parents ask for related information. “It limits the discretion of the educator to decide, ‘OK, I heard two students talking in the hall about a third student making comments about their sexual preference. I’m not going to take that seriously,’” Tapp said.

Not all school officials would be required to adhere by the provisions in this bill. The state health code allows a licensed mental health professional working in a school to exercise discretion on when to keep information confidential from parents, Tapp said. The bill would not override that confidentiality, he said.

But having two conflicting pieces of legislation would “put people in an uncomfortable position of being unsure of what law to follow,” said Will Francis, government relations director of the National Association of Social Workers’ Texas chapter. Unless students are planning to harm themselves or others, social workers believe “the client ultimately should be the one disclosing personal issues about themselves, no matter what the client’s age,” especially when the issues deal with sexuality and gender.

Burton’s bill is an example of “government overreach” and a “bad precedent,” he said. “It would truly harm the mental health services in schools” if students did not feel they could trust their psychologists.

LGBT rights organization Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith, a vocal critic of the bill, said he is worried about parents abusing students after finding out they are gay or transgender.

“What happens if the disclosure of this specific information is the cause of abuse or neglect?” he said. “What we know from reality, and sadly from experience, is that it does happen when kids either come out to their parents as gay or transgender, that sometimes those children are beaten or emotionally abused or kicked out of the house and made homeless.”

Students may feel more comfortable revealing their sexual identity to a teacher or counselor than to a parent, he said.

Smith said the bill could benefit from the inclusion of a clause allowing an educator to “make a professional judgment” whether to disclose information to parents if they believe the disclosure would result in a student being harmed at home. An Equality Texas petition opposing the bill garnered more than 2,200 signatures as of Tuesday morning, he said.

The editorial board of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram backed Burton in an article, arguing the law already protects students at risk of abuse. “If there is reason to believe a student would be kicked out of the house, neglected or in any way their safety is undermined, that would fall under the child abuse exemption and schools should protect the student,” the board wrote.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • The Fort Worth Independent School District issued new guidelines for accommodating transgender students, pleasing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
  • In an advisory opinion, Paxton said the Fort Worth school superintendent exceeded his authority — and may have run afoul of state law — by issuing a policy to accommodate transgender students.

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association and the Association of Texas Professional Educators have been financial supporters of The Texas TribuneA complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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