(Update: The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted Thursday to recommend passage of LD 394, the bill that would ratify Chapter 117. The vote fell along party lines.)
The role of social workers and guidance counselors in Maine’s schools would be codified and expanded if a controversial new rule from the Maine Department of Education receives approval from Maine lawmakers.
The rule, known as Chapter 117, was proposed by the Maine Department of Education in response to a law passed in 2019. Because the rule is “major substantive”, it requires final approval through the standard legislative process, which is why it came before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on April 6.
At that hearing, the vast majority of people who attended testified against the rule change.
The bill heads back to the committee Thursday for a work session.
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Supporters of the rule argue that social workers and guidance counselors have increasingly become an important part of Maine’s public schools in recent years and their official duties need clarification.
Bear Shea, a mental health specialist with the Maine Department of Education, testified in support of the bill at its initial hearing.
“One of the tenets of Maine’s Whole Student Approach is supporting healthy and safe schools,” Shea said.
“LD 394 helps us achieve this goal by supporting the variety of mental health professionals that engage with our families and communities to keep our students safe,” said Shea.
For mental health professionals, the rule would also clear up confusion when it comes to hiring for such positions within public schools.
However, parental rights advocates see the rule as an attempt to erode the constitutional rights of parents to control decisions that affect the health and education of their minor children.
At issue is a provision in the proposed rule that would allow certain social workers to engage in “psychosocial evaluation” of students, including diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and emotional disorders.
Nothing in the rule would require school counselors to include parents in discussions of the diagnosis and treatment of their children.
That means a school social worker could diagnose and treat a minor child for any range of mental health conditions without informing the parents.
For opponents of Chapter 117, the language of the rule sets up a scenario where schools can make major decisions affecting the health and well-being of young children without informing parents or including them in discussions.
Specifically, opponents see the rule as legitimizing the practice, which some Maine schools have already adopted, of providing gender transition counseling to students without informing parents.
Social gender transitions, which include school staff using incorrect pronouns or new names to refer to students, could fall under the allowable “treatments” a social worker could prescribe to a student without the consent or knowledge of the parents or guardians.
Parents fears have not been allayed by recent developments in several Maine schools.
A guidance counselor in the Massabesic schools recently bragged to parents at an RSU 14 school board meeting that she would provide young girls with breast binders without telling their parents.
The Oxford Hills school district last year attempted to adopt a “gender identity” policy that would have required school employees in some circumstances to withhold information about a student’s mental health from parents.
The Yarmouth schools will consider a similar policy on Thursday.
In the Winslow school district last year, a guidance counselor emailed an “all staff” mailing list to tell school employees that a student would now be using pronouns and a name different from their biological sex. The counselor said in the email that this change should not be shared with parents.
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In Damariscotta’s Great Salt Bay Community School, exactly the scenario Chapter 117 opponents fear most unfolded in December, when a conditionally licensed 26-year-old social worker provided a breast binder and gender counseling to a 13-year-old girl without informing the girl’s mother. Several school employees also began using male pronouns to refer to the girl — all without telling the mother what was going on.
The mother of that girl, Amber Lavigne, is now suing the AOS 93 school system alleging that school officials violated her constitutional rights when they intentionally concealed the social worker’s diagnosis and treatment of her daughter.
Lavigne was among those who turned out to testify in opposition to Chapter 117 and she plans to attend the work session on Thursday.
“I oppose chapter 117 primarily because it removes power from parents to utilize their judgement to decide what is best for their children and redistributes that power to school social workers,” Lavigne told the Maine Wire.
“This bill will allow school social workers to counsel our children on anything they wish, and will allow for them to do so in private, without ever meeting the parents. Not only does this remove parents’ ability to make decisions regarding their child’s upbringing, but also hinders our ability to protect our children from people who may not be safe,” Lavigne said.
“I’m hopeful that the nightmare that our family has been through serves as a cautionary tale and that our representatives do what is right, what the people are asking,” she said. “I hope that this bill doesn’t pass and instead, a bill is adopted that does not allow for school social workers to keep secrets from parents.”
But supporters of Chapter 117 — and supporters of withholding information from parents concerning student gender identity — say such policies are necessary to protect students from their parents.
Contained within that view is a presupposition that all parents will react negatively if they learn that their child is suffering from gender dysphoria or experiencing gender confusion.
Advocates for parental rights in education say that presupposition is unwarranted.
Michael Costa, testifying on behalf of Gays Against Groomers, said the evidence from European studies of social gender transitions show adverse health outcomes for children.
Costa said beginning social transitions on young children could lead those children to embrace irreversible hormone treatments and surgeries when most would mature into gay or bisexual adults without the gender counseling interventions.
“We believe that counselors and social workers have a responsibility to approach this situation according to actual psychosocial data,” said Costa.
“Public schools claim that socially transitioning a child behind their parents’ back is the best thing for their mental health. But this is not the case,” he said.
“Without social transition, upwards of 80% of these kids grow up to be gay or bisexual,” he said.
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Alvin Lui, president of Courage Is a Habit, a parental rights nonprofit, excoriated the draft rule change for its potential to increase incidences of gender dysphoria and gender confusion throughout Maine’s public schools.
“Chapter 117 expands the authority of school counselors and social workers to hide transgender and sex secrets from parents,” said Lui. “K-12 has become a Transgender Cult recruiting center.”
Lui pointed to the rapid increase in young girls identifying as transgender and suggested social contagion is driving the trend — social contagion that would only accelerate were Chapter 117 to be adopted, he said.
In Maine, survey data show evidence that teen gender identity trends are following a pattern of social contagion. The number of students identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender has risen sharply since 2017, for example, with much of that change driven by young women who say they are bisexual.
The role of social workers and guidance counselors has grown in Maine schools in recent years due to the Mills Administration’s focus on “social-emotional learning,” gender ideology, and equity-based programming.
This shift in education was summed up last month in testimony offered to the Education Committee by Education Commissioner Pender Makin.
Makin said “academic learning” needs to be less of a priority than ensuring schools promote diversity, equity, and inclusion through social-emotional learning practices.
“Academic learning is definitely going to take a backseat to all of these other pieces,” Makin said.
Makin said the “other pieces” are needed so that children will feel safe, because if they don’t feel safe, then “the little editor in their head is going to get pushed out of its seat, and the dysregulation takes over.”
Here’s the full text of the draft rule: