The state budget provision that opponents say cools important conversations about race has been law for two weeks, but community members are still seeking advice on what they call unclear language.
Educators and civil rights activists, among others, say that while waiting for more information from the state, they fear the law may already lead to self-censorship in school curricula, diversity training on the workplace and implicit police bias courses.
Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion Chairperson Ahni Malachi said conversations are underway with Attorney General John Formella and the Department of Justice to develop guidance for agencies in the State, adding that the legislation “would not prohibit necessary conversations”.
“These conversations are still going on at the state level, so we’ll have a lot more information to share later,” Malachi said in an email.
After initially declaring that he would veto earlier versions of the legislation, Governor Sununu enacted the budget at the end of June, along with the provision commonly referred to as “divisive concepts”. The move resulted in the abrupt resignation of more than half of the members of the Diversity Council, with former members citing concerns that the bill is fundamentally at odds with the council’s mission to tackle inequality and discrimination.
The law specifically prohibits teaching in schools or government agencies the idea that an individual is racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive because of their age, gender, or any other identity – “knowingly or unknowingly”.
Supporters of the bill say the provision will strengthen New Hampshire’s race relations and protect everyone – including whites – from discrimination in public schools and workplaces.
With language in the budget that says violating the law could result in “disciplinary action from the state school board,” educators are scrutinizing the bill carefully, especially in public schools where teachers are developing their programs for next fall.
“This is a bill that really sends a very scary message to educators in the state of New Hampshire. They could lose their license, ”said James Morse, superintendent of the Oyster River Co-operative School District and former member of the Diversity Council.
Morse said the overriding concern among superintendents across the state is what the bill means for educators, academic freedom and teaching “the real story of racism.”
“Racism is certainly one of the problems that has haunted our country since its inception,” he said. “To get past that, we need to create an atmosphere where we can learn from the past, grow and become better people. “
Pending more information from the state, Oyster River administrators are seeking advice from their own school attorneys, Morse said.
“Everyone is waiting to learn more about what this bill means. It’s hot in the presses. There is a huge concern, ”he said. “There is no clarity here other than it scares people.”
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and a former member of the Diversity Council, said the ACLU would be ready to support educators as much as possible.
“Of course, we’re all really waiting for state guidance to see if it provides any kind of clarity on what this law does and doesn’t do,” Chaffee said.
Bow-Dunbarton Superintendent Dean Cascadden said he was concerned that the legislation would have a chilling effect on certain topics, but that he was not concerned that his district’s programs were in violation of the law.
“I’m a little less worried after reading the text,” Cascadden said. “I’m not really sure now what Bill is trying to accomplish.”
The Cascadden School District has an Equity and Diversity program that shows students “windows and mirrors” – through which children can reflect on their own culture and identity, as well as see and accept the experiences of others.
“I think people don’t want their kids brainwashed, but I don’t think we do. I think we’re trying to ask critical questions, ”Cascadden said. “We’re asking people to look at their assumptions, look at their backgrounds, and then ask the question, ‘That’s another human being. Am I treating this person fairly? “
Dottie Morris, director of diversity and multiculturalism at Keene State College and former vice president of the Diversity Council, said that while she believes the legislation will have a bigger impact on K-12 schools than it does on the higher education, it could have an effect on diversity training for teachers and staff.
“There is a lot of anxiety and confusion,” Morris said. “I keep asking for clarification, and I don’t have any. I don’t know what impact this will have on colleges and universities.
Besides the uncertainty surrounding the bill, Morris said one of his biggest concerns was the potential impact of the legislation on conversations about the breed.
While on the state’s Diversity Council, Morris and the other members held a dozen listening sessions across New Hampshire, hearing different populations talk about their experiences of discrimination. One of the most common comments the council received was that there needs to be more diversity education, Morris said.
“A lot of people were pushing for education,” she said. “They were talking about their experiences and their pain, and they saw it as a resolution to be able to have some of these conversations about race and racism and all the other isms out there.”
Joseph Lascaze, who has helped shape and lead cultural diversity courses for new police officers through the Police Standards and Training Board this year, said he was hesitant to continue the courses at the light of the new law.
“It’s just a wet blanket,” Lascaze said. “There really is no clarity as to whether this training that we are doing that is so critical to New Hampshire law enforcement is allowed to continue.”
Classes included a discussion of implicit bias and racial profiling, and highlighted the experiences of various people in New Hampshire, including people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
“(The law) gives me a serious break to continue doing this work because if there is a member of the police force who does not agree with this training – to my knowledge – it opens me up – even or the PSTC to prosecution, ”he said. “I don’t want to be penalized or punished for sharing experiences that I have had or the experiences of other black and brown people in New Hampshire communities.”
Lascaze, a smart justice organizer for the ACLU of New Hampshire, is also a member of the Governor’s Commission on Accountability, Community and Transparency in Law Enforcement, or LEACT.
Earlier this month, members of LEACT called for an emergency meeting to discuss “division concepts” legislation. This request was turned down by Attorney General John Formella – who helped draft the wording of the law – responding that the matter was outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
“Our legal team is revising the language. We’re still trying to make sense of it all, ”Lascaze said. “The problem is that this law is already in force. This is the problem. This means that there are conversations stopping right now in New Hampshire that could really benefit people in our communities. While this law is in effect, we have to sit down and wait and see how it really affects people, and I think it’s backwards. “
Many organizations – including the State Business and Industry Association, the Office of the Child Advocate, the New Hampshire Providers Association, and many school boards – have opposed the law.
The BIA spoke out against the legislation in April when the provision was first added to the budget bill, citing fears it would ban diversity training among companies that contract with the state . The language that included state contracts has since been removed.
“The BIA is still opposed to this, and I know that many private sector companies that were initially concerned remain opposed,” said David Juvet, senior vice president of public policy at BIA.
While businesses are no longer concerned that the provision will affect them directly, Juvet said the fear is that it may deter businesses from relocating to the Granite State, especially minority entrepreneurs.
“I think it might impact millennials who want to move to New Hampshire because I think generally they have an increased sensitivity to diversity and systemic racism,” Juvet said. “This type of language is not helpful in demonstrating that New Hampshire is open to this type of discussion.”