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  • Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times

Florida lawmakers propose ‘parental rights’ law

Too often, governmental entities in Florida “think they know better” than the parents they’re supposed to serve, says Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican. School districts, for instance, often conduct risk assessments on children and don’t share the results with families, she said. Sexual abuse in schools isn’t always properly reported, she added. On Thursday, Grall sought support to create a new chapter in Florida law, aimed directly at detailing parental rights. “It is about setting apart from all statutes what a parent can expect in interacting with the government,” Grall told the House Education Committee, the first stop for HB 1171. “This is all about empowering, engagement.”

The bill makes plain that the state and other governments would not be permitted to infringe on the “fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest” in the narrowest and least restrictive way possible. Among other things, it asserts parents’ authority in making decisions about school choice, obtaining school records, objecting to classroom materials and getting information about school clubs and activities. It also would require school districts to adopt detailed policies promoting parental involvement. “Government systems increasingly diminish the role of the family, leaving parents to fight a system to do what is best for their children,” Grall said. “It’s time to empower parents.” The proposal gained unanimous bipartisan support from the Education Committee, whose members called it “perfect” and “so important.” But it also raised some cautionary flags among groups that see schools as a safe place for children who don’t always have parental backing.

“We have concerns about this bill and its potentially chilling impacts,” Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ civil rights organization. “Sadly, an alarming number of LGBTQ youth face neglect, abuse and other dangers when they come out to their families.” Often, schools offer a place to get services and support that parents might not provide, Maurer said, adding that he worried the bill might violate students’ right to privacy. Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican, told Maurer he could not think of two more loving people toward a child than its parents. “Do you find parents that actually have abused children because of their sexual orientation?” Massullo asked. “I can tell you unequivocally, yes,” Maurer responded, again urging caution in the legislation.

The committee did not consider changing the bill during its discussion, and Grall did not hint whether she might offer some amendments as it moves to its next stops at Health & Human Services and Judiciary. Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, said he welcomed the legislation. He said the superintendent in his local school district has told parents they are not qualified to have a role in their children’s education because they lack education degrees, and the district doesn’t have to do as parents request. The proposal “will certainly help parents in my community,” Fine said. Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson, a St. Lucie County Democrat, said she understood the issues Maurer raised. But she added that she liked the idea of finding ways to get parents more involved, rather than less. “I would hope there would be more parents who are concerned,” Hogan Johnson said. A companion bill in the Senate, filed by Sen. Joe Gruters, has not been scheduled for discussion in any of its three committee assignments.


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