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TN Legislature discusses amendments to "Don't Say Gay" bill

5:12 PM, Mar 12, 2013   |    comments
Sen. Stacey Campfield
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Guidance counselors, teachers and principals may be limited to giving only career and educational advice to students under the latest version of a bill that deals with discussion of homosexuality in schools.

A measure in the works in the Tennessee legislature would bar school personnel from advising students on "mental health" issues, 'lifestyle' choices or other conditions or activities outside career and educational counseling" unless they have been licensed as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.

The legislation, which could come up for discussion today, has been filed as an amendment to the Classroom Protection Act, which itself updates the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill that has tied the legislature in knots the past several years.

Sponsors say it would ensure that guidance counselors stick to their roles.

"School counselors in general are licensed, hired and paid to be counseling on academic and career education," said state Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge. "We do not pay them nor license them to counsel on anything else."

The amendment already is drawing fire from critics of the "Don't Say Gay" bill and the Classroom Protection Act. They say the amendment would discourage students from discussing their problems with those they trust.

"Kids come to school personnel all the time with all kinds of problems," said Chris Sanders, president and chairman of the Tennessee Equality Project, a gay rights group. "What it does to kids is it leaves them in limbo."

Lawmakers first debated legislation that came to be known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill in 2009, when then-state Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, filed a measure prohibiting discussions of homosexuality before high school. The measure has failed repeatedly.

Now a senator, Campfield added a provision to this year's version, Senate Bill 234, requiring school counselors to inform parents if a student discusses his or her sexual orientation.

The amendment would jettison that approach. Teachers, counselors and principals instead would be asked to give students a referral for psychiatric care if they bring up mental health or lifestyle issues. School districts would also have to train educators on how to handle such questions.

Ragan said his amendment would not prohibit conversations with students entirely. They would just assume all the legal risk if they did so.

"There's nothing in the bill - nor could there be anything in the bill - that abridges First Amendment rights," he said.

The bill was on the agenda to be heard in the House Education subcommittee on Tuesday. Companion legislation is yet to be heard in the Senate.

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