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Maine Senate debates new school counselor confidentially rules

In this April 1, 2016 photo, Jasmine Hansen, an eighth grader at Hasting Middle School, talks with school counselor Rick Wheeler in his office in Hastings, Minn. Hansen is one of the almost 500 students that Wheeler oversees.
Kevin Burbach
In this April 1, 2016 photo, Jasmine Hansen, an eighth grader at Hasting Middle School, talks with school counselor Rick Wheeler in his office in Hastings, Minn. Hansen is one of the almost 500 students that Wheeler oversees.

The national debate over balancing "parents' rights" with those of students who confide personal information with school counselors spilled into the Maine Senate on Tuesday. Majority Democrats advanced a Department of Education rule that codifies new confidentiality standards for counselors, but not before Republicans argued that it allows students and counselors to keep secrets from their parents.

"Would the DOE mind if I'm involved in my son's life? Would you mind? I expect to be," said state Sen. James Libby, a Republican from Standish.

Libby spent nearly 25 minutes speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday trying to convince Democrats to reject a routine rule change that's been supercharged by the nationalized politics of "parents' rights."

And the issue of "parents' rights" has become the pretext for an array of issues that anger conservatives, including teachings about race history, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Libby didn't mention those topics directly, and said he doesn't necessarily agree with conservative activists who believe that public schools have become havens for liberal indoctrination.

Instead, he described the revamped counselor confidentiality rule as a barrier between parents and their kids, potentially affecting his own son, who attends a public school.

"I don't know of any problems that he has now, but if he has some, I want to be alerted. And I want to be part of the solution," Libby said. "Don't you? Don't we?"

"There's nothing in this legislation that prohibits that kid, that student, from going home and talking to his mum and dad," responded Sen. Joseph Rafferty, a Democrat from Kennebunk. "There's not a thing in here that says that."

Rafferty said the rule strengthening school counselor confidentiality is intended to protect students who don't have supportive parents, or who are afraid of how they'll react.

"And for me, I believe that these counseling sessions allow a child to speak freely in an atmosphere that creates a safe place where a child can confide in an adult," he said.

Rafferty's arguments dovetailed with those who supported the rule change during last month's public hearing before the Legislature's education committee.

During that hearing LGBTQ advocates, pediatricians, trauma specialists and school administrators said that counselor and social worker confidentiality is fundamental to protecting students at school and encourages them to be more open about their experiences and who they are.

Such confidentiality rules vary across Maine school districts, but the change advanced in the Senate Tuesday makes it clear that counselors are not required to divulge information from counseling sessions except in cases that may involve imminent danger to the child or others.

But Republican Jim Libby said the exceptions are vague.

"What if it's a serious drug? Does the school counselor share that with the parent? We have no guidance from these rules," he argued.

"Our job is not to keep secrets with kids," responded Sen. Cameron Reny, a Democrat from Round Pond, and a licensed school counselor.

Reny attempted to dispel the idea that confidentiality is a way of displacing parents.

Reny said it's a tool to ensure that students have an outlet and that a professional is there to provide guidance and monitoring if a situation at school or at home escalates.

"We need to have the discretion to keep that confidentiality for those students so that they feel safe enough to come back and let us know when it's something real, when it's something big and it's something scary," Reny said. "This job is not about hurting kids. It's not about cutting parents out. Education is a team sport."

Nevertheless, the confidentiality proposal has been inserted into a broader movement that played out in last year's legislative and gubernatorial elections.

Democrats in Maine emerged relatively unscathed from that multimillion dollar messaging campaign.

But conservative activists and legislators have redoubled their efforts during the legislative session, backing a slew of bills that turn on the notion that schools are run by liberal administrators and teachers pushing an agenda and excluding parents.

How that will play out in next year's election is a mystery, but for now the new counselor confidentiality standard is poised for passage after Tuesday's 22-12 in favor of it.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.