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Exeter Teen Disciplined for Expressing Catholic View on Gender

An Exeter High School freshman, who is also a practicing Catholic, was suspended from school sports after he affirmed the Catholic Church’s teachings on gender during a private conversation with another student.

Now the teen, identified in court records as M.P., and his family are suing the district for violating his rights. M.P. is represented by Cornerstone attorney Ian Huyett.

According to a Cornerstone statement, M.P. did nothing except express his constitutionally protected views. “M. P. did not harass or demean any student, but simply expressed his views on a contentious cultural issue.” 

Exeter Region Cooperative School Board Chair Helen Joyce did not respond to a request for comment. The lawsuit is filed in Rockingham Superior Court.

Cornerstone is a Christian advocacy non-profit based in Manchester and founded by conservative politician and activist Karen Testerman. According to Cornerstone, M.P. did not target or bully any transgender student with his speech. Instead, he was punished by Assistant Principal Marcy Dovholuk after he had a private conversation with another student.

M.P. had an exchange with a progressive student, who is described as not being transgendered, on a school bus. During the conversation, M.P. relayed his belief informed by Catholic teaching that there are two genders, male and female. This exchange was followed by a conversation between the two students over a text messaging app. That’s when the progressive student then got Dovholuk involved.

“The student then turned a copy of this text conversation over to Vice Principal Dovholuk, who confronted M. P. with printed copies of the text messages. M. P. was then subject to an athletic suspension,” according to the complaint.

Dovholuk suspended M.P. from athletics because of this conversation, which happened outside the school building, Cornerstone said.

Exeter adopted a Gender Nonconforming Students policy in 2016 that states in part, “[a] student has the right to be addressed by a name and pronoun that corresponds to the student’s gender identity,” it also includes a broader rule: “the intentional… refusal to respect a student’s gender identity… is a violation of this policy.” 

Exeter parents are already wary of the district’s handling of controversial issues and what many parents believe is an ideological bias among its leadership.

Exeter’s SAU 16 was put on notice by the state last month when the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the office of the Commissioner for New Hampshire’s Department of Education published a joint report on several concerns at the school, involving the violation of student rights. 

The report found, among other issues, that the school violated students’ rights during the prom when school staff put marks on the hands of students to indicate their vaccination status. 

And the district’s Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, Andres Mejia, is part of the leadership team of the Black Lives Matter Seacoast organization.

Asked if, given his open ideological advocacy for BLM, he would work on behalf of religious and conservative students, as much as he works for minority and LGBTQ students, Mejia insisted it would not be a problem.

“My role is working for all students,” Mejia said. “And conservative children are part of that.”

The complaint alleges the district is violating M.P. ‘s rights under Article 22 of the New Hampshire Bill of Rights which protects his right to free speech. The suit also argues the school had no legal ability to punish M. P. for the content of his off-campus text messages.

As many other districts in New Hampshire have adopted similar policies to those in Exeter, M.P. ‘s case could have wide-ranging impacts throughout the Granite State.

“The key question before the court will be if Exeter’s Gender Nonconforming Students policy, nearly identical to the policy adopted by school districts across the state, can be used to suppress the free speech rights of students who hold dissenting views,” Cornerstone said in a statement.

Dem Rep. Says Parental Notification Bill Shrinks Importance of Sex Education

Some New Hampshire Democrats believe a bill that would require school districts to provide parents at least two weeks’ notice about material related to human sexuality is overstepping the state’s role in local education.

“My concern is that it mandates a two-week notice,” said Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester. “The biggest problem is that this will not solve the problem. Every school principal needs to talk with their teachers about the importance of parent communication. It should be a local matter as to how that policy is developed based on the school and [grade] level.”

Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, is the prime sponsor of the bill (House Bill 103) and she introduced it after her 8-year-old son said he watched a video at school that depicted a young boy being sexually abused by his uncle and confronting his abuser alone.

Sullivan said the bill would “simply give parents more control and a stronger voice.”

“Local control begins with the parents and the taxpayers,” she told NH Journal. “We have seen parents pushed further and further out of the conversation when it comes to education.”

This isn’t the first time this bill has been in the Legislature. Former Gov. Maggie Hassan previously vetoed the legislation in 2015. It was then reintroduced in the House in 2016, but ultimately failed in the Senate.

State law already allows parents or legal guardians to have a say if they believe that material put in front of their children by schools is objectionable. They would need to notify the school principal in writing of the material they object to and then the student can participate in an “alternative agreed upon” curriculum by the school district and the parent that still meets state requirements for education in that subject area.

Heath said the two-week parental notification is unnecessary because parents can already “opt out” their student if they find any curriculum to be questionable, and the bill undermines the importance of sexual education in schools.

“Good communication with parents is essential,” she told NH Journal. “At the same time, some parents and especially those to the ‘far right’ don’t believe their children should learn anything beyond the ‘basics.’ I understand that, hence the ‘opt out’ [option]. However, House Bill 103 sends the wrong message about the importance of comprehensive sexuality education.”

The national Republican Party platform includes a section on the importance of returning control of public education to the states, school districts, and parents of students. In regards to sexual education, they call for a replacement of “family planning programs.”

“We renew our call for replacing ‘family planning’ programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior,” the platform states.

The New Hampshire Republican Party platform does not include anything about sexual education.

Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to allow parental involvement in sexual education programs. Three states — Arizona, Nevada, and Utah — require parental consent before a child can receive instruction.

The bill will now head to the Senate Education Committee to debate the bill and with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in the corner office, it’s possible that he would sign the legislation into law. He has not indicated if he supports the bill yet.


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