Lawmakers vow to try again as FOIA bill dies
“This bill is probably not going to go anywhere, but I do think it is an opportunity to continue what is a difficult conversation to have.” State Rep. Jennifer Leeper
FAIRFIELD — Officials say the need to prevent people from being able to request communications between teachers and students on sensitive topics is still critically important even as a bill to do so died this legislative session.
State representatives from districts covering Fairfield, Trumbull, Norwalk and Westport introduced proposed House Bill 6192, which stated “any communication between a teacher and a student regarding sensitive subjects, such as sexual orientation, gender identity and race, that occur during school-sponsored activities” could no longer be requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
State Reps. Jennifer Leeper, D-132, Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-133, Sarah Keitt, D-134, and Dominique Johnson, D-143, said they introduced the legislation as a concept bill to address an issue where requests by members of the public consumed a lot of school district resources in communities across the state.
“This bill is probably not going to go anywhere, but I do think it is an opportunity to continue what is a difficult conversation to have,” Leeper said. “There is a national movement that has lead a lot of people to believe that our teachers are influencing kids in dangerous and insidious ways, which had real world impacts even here in Connecticut and across our state.”
Leeper said school districts are being inundated by FOIA requests. She said Amity Regional District 5 is processing a request that is already 20,000 pages and counting. In Darien, she said, the school district has spent more than $100,000 on legal fees as it responds to more than two dozen FOIA requests filed by one person.
“Guilford, after having their legal fees increase over 75 percent, had to fund a part-time FOIA clerk just to respond to all the requests they’re getting,” she said. “Those are all resources coming out of our schools and out of the classroom to respond to what I think are, in some cases, of course not all cases, but in some cases, bad faith requests.”
Leeper said the issue has impacted Fairfield as well, adding the school district has seen FOIA requests from individuals about children who are not their children, about teachers who do not teach their children and to schools their children do not attend. She said that impacts students who participate in activities where discussions on gender, sexual orientation and race are had, as well as their families.
She said Fairfield has a good policy on issues like this, where they will take every effort to include parents in those types of conversations unless they feel a child’s health or safety is at risk.
Leeper said this is making some teachers feel under attack and less willing
to serve as trusted adults for their students, adding it’s particularly important for LGBTQ students.
“We know that these are our most vulnerable kids, and that is because of attacks like these and other somewhat insidious efforts that are happening across the nation to restrict kids’ access to gender affirming care and safe environments,” she said.
McCarthy Vahey said the bill was an attempt to start a conversation about supporting parents and young people as they begin to understand their identities. She said the
vast majority of children’s “trusted adults” are their parents.
“But we also know that as children develop and move into the teenage years they turn to other trusted adults as well,” she said. “We want to make sure that those interactions can be supportive, while always working in concert to include families and parents, and allow teachers, staff counselors, administrators and advisors to be able to be present to children who are coming to them.”
Keitt said one purpose of the bill was to allow teachers and students the time and space to work out how students can approach family members who may not be supportive of their identity. She said there are rare cases in which students are outed as gay or transgender because of FOIA requests.
“Children who are outed (can) face very serious negative outcomes, like being thrown out of the house or maybe subjected to physical or psychological abuse,” she said. “This would allow school staff to develop a safety plan and to have that plan in place should the student need it. It had nothing to do with blocking parental rights. Parents can still gain access to curriculum and opt students out of certain topics that are being taught.”
Keitt noted that The Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer young people, has found that LGBTQ youth are nearly four times more likely to die byt suicide. She said it also found those individuals report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to affirming space.
“We need to support these kids,” she said.