Bill banning discrimination in NH schools to wait, for now

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Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Sunapee, the prime sponsor of House Bill 383, to ban discrimination in schools, testifies Tuesday before the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee, while senators Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, and David Starr, R-Franconia, look on. Photo/Garry Rayno

CONCORD, NH — The Senate wants to wait and see what the House does with its bill banning discrimination in public schools before moving forward with a similar House-passed bill.

The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee Tuesday voted 5-0 to re-refer House Bill 383, which would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, creed, color, marital status, disability or national origin.

By re-referring the bill, it would be available next year if Senate Bill 263 does not pass or is vetoed. The full Senate will have to vote to re-refer the bill.

At the April 23 public hearing on HB 383, the prime sponsor, Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Sunapee, said discrimination in schools makes it difficult for students to learn because they do not feel safe or accepted.

“Discrimination in schools contributes to high rates of absenteeism, adverse health consequences, academic underachievement, bullying, dropping out of school and suicide,” she said. “Every student has a right to an education free from discrimination that provides equitable and safe opportunities to learn and grow.”

While Granite State students are protected by federal discrimination laws, New Hampshire recognizes gender identity and sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination laws, Tanner noted, but that law only covers employment, housing and places of public accommodations, not education.

Under the bill, schools, public or private, that accept public money for programs like school vouchers, lunch programs or grants to upgrade security or technology would have to develop an anti-discrimination policy.

“Prejudices are deeply ingrained in our society and discrimination has had a long, sad legacy in our schools,” Tanner said. “Fighting discrimination takes courage and commitment, but when we stand up to injustice and seek equality, all students stand to benefit.”

The bill passed the House on a 202-161 vote and would require the State Board of Education see to it that each school district, private or charter school that accepts public money develops a written policy prohibiting discrimination.

The Senate bill allows a person who believes he or she has been subject to discrimination – or the attorney general – to bring a civil action against a school or a school district in superior court.

The House Education Committee is scheduled to decide what recommendation to make on the bill April 30 at 10 a.m.

Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee chair Jay Kahn, D-Keene, asked Tanner what her committee was going to do with the Senate bill.

She noted the committee would make a decision next week and said she did not object if the Senate wanted to wait and see what the House does with SB 263 before acting on her bill.

During Tuesday’s public hearing, Nashua high school teacher Stephen Scaer asked the committee to kill the bill because it would have a negative impact on schools, particularly sports program where men and women may be competing against each other instead of their own sex.

“When you know the outcome of a race before it begins,” Scaer said, “that is demoralizing.” That is why there are boys and girls sports teams, he noted.

Scaer had another objection to the bill, saying “laws such as this are used to target people and institutions of conscience,” and gave several examples.

But Bonnie Dunham, a mother who works at the Parent Information Center that assists families with children with disabilities, supported the bill.

“I know discrimination is really harmful for children,” she told the committee.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next month.