Politics & Government

Bill from North Texas senator sparks firestorm over fears it may force ‘outing’ of gay youths

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville
State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

A new bill intended to help Texans know what is going on in their children’s lives has sparked outcry from those who fear it could put some students at risk of being outed to their parents — for anything from being gay to being pregnant — by school officials.

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, said she filed Senate Bill 242 to make sure parents can access all school information about their students, not just what is written down in school records.

“I wasn’t concerned until a local school in my district decided, without parental input, that certain information should be kept from parents,” she told the Star-Telegram. “School districts should not be allowed to create policies, for any reason, that create exceptions to a parent’s expectation of full and honest information upon request.”

She has stressed that the words sexuality and gender aren’t in the bill.

But many are concerned about the controversial bill, particularly in behalf of gay Texas youths.

“Until kids are not kicked out of their house for being gay or transgender, and until kids are not being beaten by parents for being gay or transgender, we owe it to kids to protect them,” said Steven M. Rudner, chairman of Equality Texas, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“We believe Sen. Burton’s legislation would essentially destroy protected communications between a student and an educator,” said Rudner, the father of a gay child. “SB242’s stated intent would force the outing of LGBTQ students.”

Burton said her bill was prompted by the Fort Worth school district’s effort this year to create guidelines letting transgender students use the restroom that matches the gender with which they identify.

Statewide officials and local parents alike protested the guidelines.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion claiming that the Fort Worth policy wrongly limited parental access to information. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who plans to make the restroom battle a legislative priority next year, even called for Superintendent Kent Scribner’s resignation.

Scribner did not resign, but he and other Fort Worth school officials went back to the drawing board, held public hearings and rewrote the guidelines, which appeared to please state officials and parents.

“What happened at FWISD exposed opportunities to strengthen the provisions of state law that secure a parent’s expectation of full and honest information upon request,” Burton said. “While the attorney general ruled that the new policies put in place by FWISD were in violation of the existing provisions in state law, I find it necessary to strengthen, and make more definitive, the language in the Education Code.

“School districts should not, for any reason, subvert the relationship the parent has with their child, and state law should provide a clear defense for parents to rely upon should they attempt to do so. It should never have come to the intervention of the attorney general.”

‘All’ means ‘all’

State law already allows written information such as attendance records, disciplinary records or test scores to be released to parents.

But Burton’s bill requires schools to release more of student records — including any documentation about their “general physical, psychological or emotional well-being” — to parents.

This is what some fear could “out” LQBT youths to their parents. Any attempt to withhold information from a parent, under this bill, is grounds for discipline of a teacher or school official.

“My bill would make clear that when a parent seeks information from a school district that ‘all information’ means ‘all,’ ” Burton said. “We, of course, are maintaining the current exception for abuse and neglect, as children of all backgrounds could be in potentially harmful home situations and we must allow our school district faculty and staff the flexibility to make those judgment calls on behalf of the child.”

Burton’s proposal generated a social media storm, prompting comments on Twitter such as “This legislation will kill kids,” “This is how you kill queer kids” and “I want to kick someone in the shins,” not to mention a variety of blog posts and articles.

Burton said her office has been fielding responses to this bill but believes that most of the backlash is based on misinformation.

Burton said her office has been fielding responses to this bill but believes that most of the backlash is based on misinformation.

“The overwhelming majority of opposition has not only come from outside the district, but outside the state of Texas,” she said. “We saw locally in Fort Worth that treating parents as part of the solution and not as part of the problem has broad support and what I’m hearing from the local community reflects that.”

Some local parents say they will be watching how this bill evolves through the upcoming legislative session.

On the surface, much of the bill seems to be reasonable and provide information “a parent would want and should have access to,” said Veronica Villegas, mother of two high school students in the Fort Worth school district.

“However, there are some things in the proposed bill that do have me concerned,” she said. “Of course any parent is concerned about their student … and would want to know these things. But it doesn’t take into account special circumstances.”

For instance, general knowledge about a student might simply include what a teacher has heard from another student or gossip — which very well might not be accurate at all, she said.

“Asking for indirect, incidental knowledge is putting too heavy a burden on our school district employees. It’s unfair to the school district or the students,” Villegas said, particularly when “a child fears retribution or punishment or ostracization from the parent, the person who is caring for them the most.

“I think some sort of latitude and discretion should be allowed. … Certainly consideration should be given if they fear emotional or physical harm.”

Burton’s proposal has also come to the attention of local educators, some of whom say they will take a wait-and-see approach to the bill.

“On the fact of it, it’s not a bad thing, but it’s going to take a lot of learning on both sides,” said Steven Poole, executive director of the Tarrant County-based United Educators Association.

The Texas Legislature goes back to work Jan. 10.

Right now, he said, if a parent suspects his or her child is gay and asks if anything was said to school officials, school officials aren’t “obligated to share” unless that information is on a written record.

“Under Konni Burton’s law, they would have to say if they knew, if it was something the student had shared with them,” Poole said. “It’s going to create a bit of trust issues between students and their teachers or counselors, who know if parents ask, they have to tell.”

Mixed reaction

Political observers say hot-button social issues such as this may well be on the front burner when lawmakers head back to Austin for the 85th Legislature on Jan. 10.

“Even if this issue only reinforces current laws, it’s still a lathering political issue for Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The interpretation of the law, if it passes, will be critical.

“If school officials interpret this as a need to not share with parents personal information about gender or homosexual issues, that element of privacy holds,” he said. “If the attorney general weighs in and rules that school officials must share this specific information with parents, it may ‘out’ some school kids. If the courts weigh in, they may certify rights in one way or another.”

Burton’s proposal has drawn praise from some.

“We respect Senator Konni Burton for listening to her constituents last May and standing up to the Fort Worth ISD over their illegal transgender policy,” Stand for Fort Worth, a school district watchdog group, said in a statement. “As a result of the district’s illegal actions, Senator Burton has proposed SB242.

“We applaud this bill that defends parental rights, and hope other local elected officials will stand with Senator Burton.”

Not everyone is on board.

Equality Texas started an online petition opposing the bill that quickly gathered around 3,000 signatures.

“Successful classrooms are dependent upon strong, trusting relationships between teachers and students. For LGBTQ youth who can’t be open about their identities at home — for fear their parents will reject them or abuse them — the classroom is a refuge,” the petition states. “This legislation puts LGBTQ youth in harm’s way — making them more vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and even heightening the risk of suicide.

“School employees should be able to protect their students if they reasonably believe the disclosure of information to a parent would result in abuse or neglect.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley