By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Teachers could face lawsuits from parents and potential criminal charges under proposed legislation that adds penalties to violations of Arizona’s parents’ bill of rights.
State law already protects the rights of parents to raise their children, but it doesn’t include recourse for parents who feel their rights have been violated. That would change if Senate Bill 1049 becomes law. The measure would give parents the ability to sue teachers and school districts for alleged violations, and anyone found in violation would face a class 2 misdemeanor.
It also empowers the attorney general to take schools to court and could result in fines for up to $5,000.
The proposal comes amid conservative backlash against public schools over masking policies and allegations that “critical race theory” is being taught, although this bill doesn’t actually ban either. What it does do is add legal deterrents to already agreed on violations like performing surgery on children without parental consent or denying records releases. The rights to make decisions about the moral, educational and health care needs of children are all generally protected, unless other laws overrule them, as in the case of mask mandates.
Speaking Feb. 10 at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said that without penalties her bill provides, parental rights exist in name only. She rejected an attempt by Committee Chairman Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, to remove the criminal penalties to help boost support for the bill in the full Senate, saying teachers and schools should be held accountable.
“Without teeth, it’s just a suggestion,” she said, before adding that she was open to discussing the issue further at a later date.
Dana Allmond, a mother of four and a Democratic candidate for state representative, said she is worried that the specter of criminal charges and lawsuits against teachers will harm education in Arizona. Teachers are already overstretched enough, Allmond said.
“My children’s teachers have been pushing themselves to the point of fatigue and burnout,” she said. ‘I’m worried about (their) health and wellness and how that will affect my kids.”
In an email to the Arizona Mirror, an Arizona Department of Education spokeswoman said the department is opposed to bills that create financial or criminal penalties for teachers and schools, and that there are already avenues in place to address parent concerns.
“We know parents and teachers share the same goal of helping their students learn and grow. That goal is best met by building stronger, trusting relationships instead of accusatory rhetoric and burdensome policy proposals,” Morgan Dick said.
Michelle Dillard, a mother and leader in the conservative Purple for Parents movement, told the committee she supports taking a more active enforcement approach to protecting the bill of rights.
“Arizona has more respect for traffic laws than the constitutional and state statutory rights of parents. If you’re found to be speeding, you’ll get a ticket. It’s both a punishment and a deterrent. But you violate parent’s rights and nothing,” she said.
In Troxel v. Granville (2000), the Supreme Court ruled that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions about their children’s care.
Steve Daniels, chairman of the right-wing Patriot Party, spoke in support of the bill, saying it would ensure the “agenda (schools) are pushing” would be eliminated. Daniels has a history of disrupting school board meetings to protest mask requirements and curriculum about race. He has no children and was arrested last year for trespassing at a Chandler school district office.
“The districts and individual teachers need accountability if they’re blatantly violating parents’ rights,” he said.
Supporters of the legislation called the current parent’s bill of rights a “so what” law, meaning there’s no way to enforce it if a violation occurs. Anna Van Hoek said she was frustrated by this, and claimed parental rights had been violated since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago.
“Kids in Tucson are still in masks, even without a state mandate,” she complained.
Tucson Unified School District has kept its mask mandate in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among its student body since the courts last year found that a prohibition on mask mandates approved by GOP lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey was unconstitutional. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports the use of masks in schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
The bill passed 5-3 along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats in opposition, and will next be discussed by the full Senate.
Sen. Sonny Borelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said adding penalties is a necessary step to ensure that things like sex education stay out of non-sex education designated classes.
“We put laws on the books and we need to ensure compliance,” he said.
Sen. Martin Quezada, a Glendale Democrat, said criminalizing teachers and schools is the wrong way to resolve parent frustrations. He also serves on the Pendergast Elementary School District governing board, which he said was successful in calming tempers just by sitting down and talking with angry people in “purple shirts” — a reference to Purple for Parents. Quezada said this legislation encourages adversarial interactions between parents which would ultimately harm students.
“Nobody is out to violate parent’s rights. We’re out to serve your kids,” he said.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.