Effort to allow opt-out from school shooting drills falters; banning the Lord’s prayer in class gains steam

  • FILE - In this Friday June 9, 2017 file photo, students are led out of school as members of the Fountain Police Department take part in an Active Shooter Response Training exercise at Fountain Middle School in Fountain, Colo. The nation's two largest teachers unions want schools to revise or eliminate active shooter drills, asserting Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 that they can harm students' mental health and that there are better ways to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting. (Dougal Brownlie/The Gazette via AP, File) DOUGAL BROWNLIE

Monitor staff
Published: 2/25/2020 4:34:30 PM

It was only June that legislators passed a law mandating annual active shooter drills in New Hampshire schools. But as the drills become commonplace, one state lawmaker is looking to give parents exit options.

A bill by Rep. Timothy Horrigan would require schools to give parents a two-week notice ahead of an “armed assailant drill,” and would allow parents to opt their children out of participating.

“I’ve heard concerns about children being traumatized by the shooting drills,” said Horrigan, a Strafford Democrat. “They have very detailed simulations at most schools but you don’t have to do that with the students, with students whose families haven’t explicitly opted into it.”

Horrigan’s bill comes after a law that took effect last June and required all schools to incorporate armed assailant drills into one of at least four drills a year, including fire drills.

That law was a recommendation of the Governor’s School Safety Preparedness Taskforce, created in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. mass school shooting in February 2018.

As more school districts incorporate the drills into their daily operations, some researchers have voiced concern around the psychological impact they can have on children – particularly when simulated gunfire is used.

But when it comes to giving an escape valve to parents, members of the House Education Committee were far from on board. In a 17-2 vote Tuesday, the committee recommended to push Horrigan’s bill, House Bill 1337, to interim study – meaning it wouldn’t have a chance of becoming law this year.

Some lawmakers said that while they understood the concerns, allowing students to opt out could dilute the effect of the training.

“It’s too big an issue,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican. “We don’t want to have a drill where some children know what they’re doing and others don’t.”

Others said the governor’s taskforce was better equipped to make recommendations to tweak the current policy. One idea being considered: allowing students in younger grades to do “desk brace drills” that are often seen as less stressful.

“Obviously this is an evolving field of study,” said Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat.

School prayer debated

Education committee members took action on opposing bills around the role of prayer in schools Tuesday.

One effort, House Bill 1306, would repeal the law that allows school districts to authorize the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. That law, in place since 1975, allows the recitation in elementary schools – though clarifies that reciting the prayer is not mandatory.

“Pupils shall be reminded that this Lord’s prayer is the prayer our pilgrim fathers recited when they came to this country in their search for freedom,” the law states. “Pupils shall be informed that these exercises are not meant to influence an individual’s personal religious beliefs in any manner.”

Rep. Stephen Woodcock, a Conway Democrat, said that the repeal was important because the prayer has already been cut down by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale.

“This bill repeals the permission to what the Supreme Court says is unconstitutional,” he said. “Nowhere are there any public schools that do this. It’s an unneeded bill.”

The short prayer begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.”

The committee voted to recommend passing the bill 12-6.

Separately, the committee recommended to shelve a counter-proposal from Republicans that sought to create an alternative set up. House Bill 1334 would have required a “moment of silence” for a period of the day in each school. That moment would be available for students to pray, meditate or “engage in any other silent activity.”

The bill would also allow the creation of student-organized religious clubs with teacher facilitators.

Members of the committee recommended killing the bill 15-3, with some saying it was unnecessary.

“The motivation behind the (move to kill the bill) is not about any particular disservice to religion, but in fact upholds our separation of church and state and provides that students to continue to take advantage of what schools already have to do, which is allow students to practice religious activities during the school day,” said Luneau.

Rep. Glen Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican, said that the bill was not centered on religion, but could incorporate a growing trend of “mindfulness” or simple reflection. He said that the bill was necessary in the face of what he described as a recent onslaught against people of faith in education lawmaking.

“There is an anti-religion movement in some corners, and I am very concerned about it,” Cordelli said.

Committee Chairman Mel Myler, a Hopkinton Democrat, had a quip in reply.

“I do believe there is prayer in school,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but every time I took an exam in school I prayed.”

Binary markers put on pause

Lawmakers also voted to recommend shelving a bill that would require school boards to add non-binary gender markers for students.

House Bill 1163 would have mandated that the boards update all documents and software to allow students to be represented as non-binary, rather than simply male or female. The bill would follow a law passed last year that allowed for an “X” marker on New Hampshire driver’s licenses; schools would similarly be required to add an X to the forms.

But House Education Committee members on both sides said they were concerned about feasibility and cost for schools, and the bill was recommended for interim study 15-3.

Rep. Cole Riel, a Goffstown Democrat and young legislator, was one of the three voting in the minority. “I would like to see the bill pass,” he said. “I thought there were valid issues brought up. There’s just a lot of logistics with any piece of legislation.”

But Riel said the bill should be moved forward to the Senate to work out any kinks.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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