Sununu signs public school anti-discrimination bill

Monitor staff
Published: 7/18/2019 1:17:32 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill to create state-level anti-discrimination protections in public schools Thursday, a sweeping change that would allow anti-discrimination lawsuits against school districts in New Hampshire courts.

Senate Bill 263 would allow any student “excluded from participation in, (or) denied the benefits of” public school to press for legal action and relief in a state Superior Court.

That includes any discrimination on the basis of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, marital status, familial status, disability, religion or national origin, the law states.

“SB 263 continues our work to ensure that New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, has an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and to make a better life for themselves and their families,” Sununu said.

The new law adds state-level protections that effectively back up existing protections in federal law under Title IX. Presently, students and families may sue in federal court for alleged violations of that federal law by public schools; by codifying into state law, the same actions can be taken in state court.

But the federal Title IX law does not include protections for gender identity or sexual orientation, after the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era executive order to create them. The state law under SB 263 would create those protections under state law.

The new law also directs school districts to create new policies on how to head off discrimination in schools, and how to address incidents that occur.

The law was one of the principal recommendations of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, a panel of state leaders and officials that held 14 listening sessions across the state last year.

Responding to the bill’s passage, Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the chairman of the governor’s council, called the legislation “a direct response to concerns raised by Granite Staters.”

“The fact that the legislation was first recommended in December and is already now law is a credit to our state’s true commitment to improving diversity and inclusion,” Johnson said.

In signing the legislation, Sununu bucked the sentiments of many members of his party, as well as a coordinated advocacy effort from the conservative group Cornerstone.

Critics had said that it would invite a flood of lawsuits and that the language around what constitutes discrimination is not adequately defined.

And throughout numerous hearings, opponents voiced concerns about how the new requirements would interact with existing school policies, with some Republican House members charging that transgender and non binary students could have an unfair advantage on the sports field.

But supporters said the law would jumpstart needed reforms within public schools and provide support to students who previously have had no state remedies.

In his own statement, Sununu said he was wary of some of the unintended consequences raised by conservative members of his party, but that his administration would be monitoring the law.

“I have listened carefully to those who have expressed concerns regarding the impact of this bill and potential unintended consequences,” Sununu said. “My team will work closely with the Human Rights Commission and Department of Justice to monitor the bill’s implementation and bring forward proposed changes in the future should adjustments prove necessary.”

Democratic lawmakers cheered on the bill’s passage, which cleared the House and Senate earlier this year largely along party lines.

Rep. Tamara Le, of North Hampton, said the suite of protections “benefits children across New Hampshire and bring us closer to the culture of inclusiveness that we all strive for.”

Rye Sen. Tom Sherman called the law “a huge step forward for equal rights” and said it gives students the protections they need and deserve against discrimination.”

The law takes formal effect Sept. 18.

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