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N.H.’s largest teachers’ union joins suit over law restricting teachings on racism, oppression

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The NEA-NH filed the lawsuit along with two public school staff, the ACLU, the Disability Rights Center-NH, and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders.

The National Education Association - New Hampshire (NEA-NH), the American Civil Liberties Union, and a group of advocacy groups and public school employees are suing the state over a new law that restricts certain kinds of teachings on racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.

The lawsuit is the second filed in federal court this month over the law, which prohibits New Hampshire teachers and public employers from teaching that any one group is inherently racist or oppressive (whether unconsciously or consciously), or that people of different groups should not be treated equally.

The lawsuit alleges that the statute is having a “chilling effect” on staff trainings and classroom discussions. And it says its language is too vague for teachers and staff to understand and comply with.

“The text of this law is not a fair rule, because the people who are subject to its harsh penalties cannot be reasonably expected to understand what it means,” said Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney with the ACLU, at a virtual press conference on Monday.

Megan Tuttle, president of the NEA-NH, said that her organization asked state officials for clarity on what lesson plans and books were allowed under the law, but she received no response.

“That lack of guidance leaves teachers feeling confused, unsupported, and fearful of running afoul of the law,” Tuttle said, noting that some teachers have pulled childrens’ books and modified lesson plans for fear of being investigated.

Attorney General John Formella, one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, issued guidance on the new law in the summer and fall, but the lawsuit says that this “fails to provide any extensive and concrete examples of what specific texts and types of diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings are (or are not) covered under the Act.”

In addition to the NEA-NH, two diversity and equity coordinators are named as plaintiffs: Andres Mejia, director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice at the Exeter school district, and Christina Kim Philibotte, chief equity officer for the Manchester school district.

The lawsuit alleges that because of the law’s vagueness, Philibotte and Mejia are unable to answer questions about what books and lessons related to racism are allowed. And it says they limited aspects of their staff training on racism, diversity, and inclusion because of the law.

“The DEI work that our clients are doing is critical to New Hampshire’s future and ensuring that communities of color - particularly as our state rapidly diversifies - feel a better sense of belonging,” said Gilles Bissonette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.

The lawsuit comes after a year of bitter fights in school districts across the state and country over how to help students navigate differences and understand American history and the legacy of racism.

Critics warned that the law would curtail honest discussions about historical and present injustices. Conservatives who championed the law alleged that public schools indoctrinate and divide students through diversity and equity initiatives.

Some also hoped the law would ban critical race theory, though there is no evidence critical race theory is being taught in New Hampshire K-12 schools.

Elizabeth Dubrulle, who works on social studies curriculum at the New Hampshire Historical Society, says the biggest shift she’s seen since the passage of the law in June is social studies teachers’ morale.

“I don’t think that people are all changing what they’re teaching,” Dubrulle says. “But the fear is real. They’re afraid that students are going to misunderstand what they said and they’re going to get reported, face possible legal ramifications, and lose their jobs.”

The NEA-NH lawsuit resembles one filed last week by New Hampshire’s other major teachers’ union, the AFT-NH. The cases may be combined as they move forward in the courts.

The ACLU is also helping civil rights groups in Oklahoma sue the state of Oklahoma over a law restricting classroom discussions on race. The ACLU says aboutnine states have laws on the books limiting teachings on race and racism, and 27 others are considering such bills.

Carroll County Republican Rep. Glenn Cordelli, who sponsored the bill behind the new law, dismissed the lawsuit as “politically motivated.”

The lawsuit names five defendants, all of whom either did not return a request for comment in time or declined to comment: Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, Attorney General John Formella, New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights Director Ahnhi Malachi, New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights Chairperson Christian Kim, and Labor Commissioner Ken Merrifield.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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