No Easy Answers: Parental Notification in Tennessee

girl turned away from camera, silhouetted by an open door doing homework

It’s tough being a teen, almost as tough as parenting one. Should your child be able to confide in a teacher and have that teacher keep it a secret, even from you as a parent?

If your child was struggling with his school work and needed additional help, would you want the school to let you know?

If your child was having trouble getting along with her classmates, spending too much time alone and/or ostracized, should the school tell you?

If your child was showing signs of a physical illness or problem, should the school inform you?

What if your child was suffering from emotional/behavioral problems, either situational or developmental? Would you expect the school to notify you?

I think most of us would answer “Yes” to all of the above without hesitation.

So now let me ask you this:

If your child went to his teacher, coach, principle, or counselor and talked about being gay, do you believe the school should inform you?

Whoa there boy! That’s just crazy talk!

Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield has introduced a bill that would require school officials to notify a child’s parents if that child receives counseling about homosexuality.

The knee jerk reaction is predictable. Bloggers at East Tennessee progressive website KnoxViews are expressing outrage in somewhat ‘colorful’ language, as is Southern Beale, another Tennessee blogger. But reaction is quickly going national with articles at national political blogsite Wonkette, and ThinkProgress.

All of these reactions follow the same pattern, with each one saying that parents should not be informed because, according to the ThinkProgess article:

Family rejection is a serious risk for LGBT youth. Kids who are LGBT often face alienation, if not outright abandonment, because they come out. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, and many of them report that the reason they left home was to escape an environment hostile to their sexual orientation.

First of all, that 40 percent quote is meaningless here. We aren’t talking about how much of the homeless population is LGBT, but what percentage of LGBT kids become homeless when they come out to their parents. I did several Google searches looking for a number and the best one I found is this one, 26 percent, but it isn’t sourced very well. While this is still too high, what it means is that 75 percent of kids who come out to their parents are accepted, or at least manage to find a working balance with their families. The majority of LGBT kids are not at risk of abandonment, but currently, their parents can still be left in the dark unless their child chooses to tell them. Given the increased rate of suicide among gay teens, is the school being responsible by not informing the parents that their child is subject to this elevated risk? The argument that informing parents may cause an increased risk of suicide is not entirely convincing; the same study showed an increase in suicide attempts of only 20 percent between supportive and unsupportive environments.

Let’s put is more directly; if your child attempted suicide and afterwards, you found out that his teacher/school counselor had known for months that he was gay but hadn’t told you for fear of the stress it might have caused him, what would your reaction be? Would you believe they had acted in the best interests of your child, or would you believe they had interfered with your parental duties and obligations? Would you thank them for leaving you in ignorance?

Let’s go with a different perspective. If you answered yes to the first four questions but no to the last, think about the message you may be sending. What you are saying is that while it is important to you to know about your child’s grades, and their physical and emotional well being, and expect to be kept in the loop, when it comes to their sexuality, you are willing to let the schools handle that with no interference from you.

Is that really the message you want to send to your school? More importantly, is that the message you want to send to your children? That instead of mom and dad, Coach Jones is the go to source for sexual advice?

Yes, I’m exaggerating, but you have to admit, there is an element of truth to this. When we allow the school to keep secrets from us about our kids, aren’t we abdicating our responsibilities as parents to the school system?

I have a serious problem with that; I am the parent, not the school. Helping my child through the most confusing time in their lives is my job, and my responsibility.

However, I recognize that there is another side to this argument, and it has points equally as valid as those I’ve made. My wife Lissa and I discussed these issues as I wrote this post.  As she pointed out, there are some very real safety concerns for the kids. I mentioned earlier that somewhere around 25% of kids who come out as gay are thrown out of their home by their parents. Once kicked out, these homeless kids face increased risks of violence, exploitation, and suicide. Even though most kids will be part of families that can adjust and accept them, can we subject even a minority of children to the expectation of abandonment, exploitation, violence, or worse? And how many children, faced with the inevitability of their parents finding out about their sexuality, will refuse to confide in anybody? How many of them will live in fear and isolation. Even worse, how many will fall victim to those who prey upon that fear and isolation? How many children’s lives will be destroyed by the revelation of their sexuality?

Can we really make an argument based on numbers, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number?’ Does it really work that way? Are all lives equal? Can we tote them up on a chalk board and do what’s best for the most without regard for the consequences to the rest?

Certainly not. Children’s lives are not numbers and you can’t play math with them. The pain of one child is not expunged by the happiness of another child.

Or two children.

Or even ten.

You still have one hurting child and that is one too many.

If a child pleads with a counselor not to tell her parents, shouldn’t the counselor have a safety valve, some way to fulfill their responsibilities to the parents without endangering the child? The answer is obviously yes, but now consider the consequences of that safety valve. We are giving this counselor the authority to evaluate your home and your parenting skills, and to determine, based solely on her opinion, whether or not you can be trusted with vital information about your child.

How many of you can name the counselors in your child’s school? More to the point, how many of them know you by name? Are you willing to allow this person to decide what you can and can’t know about your child?

I don’t like the idea that a school can keep something this big from me; the very idea is offensive. But, like Lissa argued,  I would most likely never find myself in that position. We both raised our kids to be strong, confident and to know that they could trust us with anything. I fully expect that, had one of my children been gay, they would have been able to tell me with no more fear than the understandable terror of making an admission so large. Lissa went on to argue that most parents are like us, an argument bolstered by the 75% of kids that remain home, and that these parents would never need the school to tell them; that their kids would tell them when the time was right.

I don’t know. It still bothers me. As those of you who read this know, I’m a Christian, a gun owner, a southerner, and fairly conservative. If you were a school counselor, and all you knew about me was that, would you tell me if one of my children came to you? Or would you judge me as unworthy of that knowledge?

That’s why I have to fall on the side of parental notification. Schools simply don’t have the knowledge or the resources to know which parents to tell and which ones to not tell. I do believe the counselor should have a safety valve, a way to avoid notification, but it should involve something more substantial than an opinion based on superficial knowledge. And DCS is not the right answer as their policy is that you are guilty until proven innocent, and nobody is actually innocent, some just get off on a technicality.

There are no easy answers, which is why this question deserves more thought than just a reflexive dismissal based on politically correct distaste. There are strong arguments on both sides. Demonizing the opposition may be easier, but don’t we owe it to our children to do the hard work?

So tell me what you think. Are you okay with allowing your child’s school to take over as parent as they see fit or do you believe there should be some accountability? How do you think we should balance the rights of parents against the safety of the children? I’ve told you where I stand; if you disagree, change my mind!

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Read more of Rich Hailey’s writing about everything at Shotsacrossthebow.com

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