Permission slip for 'Romeo and Juliet'? ND bill would regulate K-12 lessons on romance, sex

The bill would require school boards to create rules for obtaining written parental permission before students attend instruction relating to "romantic or sexual relationships.”

A copy of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" sits on a shelf at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library.
A copy of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" sits on a shelf at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — A bill moving through North Dakota’s legislative pipeline would task school boards with developing a policy to require written parental permission before K-12 students receive instruction on a wide range of topics, including sexual orientation and romantic relationships.

Conservative backers of the proposal say it would cement the rights of parents in state law, but educators and school board members contend that the broad language of the bill would hinder classroom instruction and place an unmanageable burden on teachers.

“To be entirely honest, (the bill) will push many caring and devoted educators out of the profession because at its core it’s centering so many people over the top of the student, who should really be our primary focus,” said Minot high school teacher Chris Brown.

The six-page Senate Bill 2260 asserts that schools and other government entities cannot infringe on “the fundamental right of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of a child.

The legislation, which the Senate advanced last month, would mandate that school boards create rules for obtaining written parental permission before students attend “any instruction or presentation that relates to gender roles or stereotypes, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or romantic or sexual relationships.”


Parents would be able to withdraw their children from instruction they believe is “harmful,” which can include presentations on “sex, morality, or religion.” The bill also would open up a legal avenue for aggrieved parents to sue schools for violating the provisions.

Sen. Bob Paulson, R-Minot, said he sponsored the bill because schools should be focused on teaching essential skills rather than divisive topics.

“My overall view of education is that it’s to teach children about reading, writing and arithmetic. That’s the foundation,” Paulson said. “I don’t think the school is the place to introduce those (controversial) concepts.”

Paulson’s push for expanded parental rights is mirrored in other Republican-led states. Nearly identical legislation has surfaced this year in South Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Fargo School Board member Robin Nelson said the bill’s appearance in other legislatures suggests it likely originates in a think tank far from North Dakota.

“Boilerplate legislation supplied by national policy institutes are rarely applicable to local jurisdictions,” Nelson said.

Paulson said he pulled legislative language from several sources to construct Senate Bill 2260, though he did not name them.

The House Human Services Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 22.


Reading the classics

Critics of Paulson’s bill argue it carries the unintended consequence of obstructing the teaching of literary classics and basic history.

Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a timeless story about a romantic relationship, while Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” revolves around an alleged sexual assault, said Brown, who teaches language arts at Minot’s Central Campus High School.

Brown believes high schoolers would need their parents’ endorsement to attend instruction on those books if Paulson’s proposal were to become law.

When asked if parental permission should be required to study “Romeo and Juliet” in school, Paulson said it would depend on the age of the student.

“There are very different topics that you’d address in kindergarten versus what you’d address as a senior in high school,” Paulson said. “I think that would be case-by-case dependent.”

The bill does not differentiate requirements for parental consent based on the age of the student.

Paulson brushed aside concerns that the bill would hamstring teachers providing lessons on uncontroversial classic books, saying that schools would just “be required to develop a process.”

“I think there’s still discretion left up to the school board,” Paulson said.


North Dakota Sen. Bob Paulson, R-Minot
North Dakota Sen. Bob Paulson, R-Minot.
Submitted photo

Brown said requiring students to get a signed permission slip to learn about sexual orientation and gender identity aims to “remove LGBTQ+ issues from the classroom,” which would prevent some students from seeing themselves in the literature and history they study in school.

Paulson said removing LGBTQ themes from school would be “a good thing.”

Beyond impeding the reading of specific books, Brown worries the bill would push North Dakota schools to adopt “a very canned curriculum” due to fear of lawsuits from parents.

Shaping classroom teaching and reading assignments around students’ interests is critical to maintaining an enthusiasm for learning, especially among children who are feeling burned out in school, Brown said. Paulson’s bill would effectively kill “student choice” in the classroom, he added.

“The idea that a student is a young person with a mind and a voice and the ability to make choices never really seems to be considered,” Brown said. “As a person who spends their time around young people, I think they would also find that offensive.”

Parents should generally trust educators to find age-appropriate materials for their students, but Paulson’s bill implies that teachers aren’t doing right by their pupils, Nelson said.

“Teachers aren’t there to hurt kids, and that’s the insinuation this bill makes in my opinion,” Nelson said.

Intent vs. application

As a school board member, Nelson said she believes parents becoming stakeholders in their children’s education is undeniably good. But she sees a misalignment between the intent of Paulson’s bill and how it would be applied in schools.


Many of the terms used in the legislation, like “romantic or sexual relationships,” are extremely broad, she said.

The parental permission requirements would pose significant challenges to students with busy, neglectful or absentee parents, including some homeless youth, Nelson added.

“It does not apply evenly across the schools,” Nelson said. “What’s fair for one student needs to be fair for all.”

Sen. Michelle Axtman, R-Bismarck, was one of two Republican senators to vote against the bill.

The Senate Education Committee member said her opposition “originated from the added burden we are placing on our educators who already are balancing so much within their classrooms.”

The bill would essentially make educators act as the “communicative arm” between families and students “at the cost of taking away from the educational experience in the classroom,” Axtman said.

Michael Geiermann, an attorney for teachers’ union North Dakota United, raised similar points, noting that the legislation “creates another layer of administration for teachers.”

“If an elementary teacher has 29 students in her classroom, under this bill, she has to now legally answer to 29 sets of new administrators on how she believes she should teach her students,” Geiermann said.


Every opponent of the education component in Paulson’s bill agrees that a state law isn’t needed for parents to raise concerns about their children’s education. Teachers are usually very receptive to concerns about classroom content when parents reach out to them, Nelson noted.

“Pick up the phone and talk to your (child’s) teacher,” Nelson said. “I guarantee you any teacher would love to talk about what they’re teaching to your kids.”

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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