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Source: New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct information.

State officials including the New Hampshire Child Advocate and the Commissioner of Safety have come out against controversial language in a state Senate budget bill that critics say would hinder or discourage diversity and inclusion training.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Thursday. 

Child Advocate Moira O’Neill said the fair treatment of children of color in the juvenile justice system and federal grant funding for several state programs are at stake. She said the state is on the cusp of transforming its juvenile justice system and the restrictions in the bill would stall that progress.

“If we can’t have these conversations, then we’re not going to be able to move forward,” O’Neill said Wednesday.

The language originated from the so-called “divisive concepts” House bill which was tabled, and amended by the Senate Finance Committee last week. In a party-line vote, the committee voted 4-2 to recommend the state budget rider bill’s passage with the language included.

O’Neill issued a statement following the vote, saying it will impede the transformation of child services, the data for which already show disparities between how white and non-white youths are treated in the system.

Republicans voted in favor of the language, which was amended to include a wide scope of identifiers beyond race and gender. Gov. Chris Sununu previously stated he was against the original House bill because it restricted free speech. It’s subsequent inclusion in the budget legislation will make it more difficult for Sununu to veto.

Advocates for the language, such as Adam Waldeck, the president of the national group 1776 Action, say it’s intended to ensure taxpayer dollars don’t fund any training which assert people are inherently racist, sexist, oppressive, superior or inferior based on their race or other identifying characteristics.

While not mentioned by name in the legislation, the body of academic study known as Critical Race Theory, parts of which is used to underpin elements of diversity and inclusion training, is the primary target, according to proponents.

“With all due respect to Director O’Neill, the effort to keep Critical Race Theory-inspired curriculum out of public schools has nothing to do with limiting open discussions about inherent bias,” Waldeck said “It’s about ensuring that New Hampshire taxpayers aren’t funding, with their tax dollars, the outright, state-led advocacy of toxic concepts that pit young children against one another based on race or gender.”

The full Senate is due to vote on its version of the state budget Thursday.

1776 Action launched a new TV ad campaign ahead of the Senate vote, which incorporates parts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream speech.

“Some want to teach New Hampshire children that America is a hateful place with a hateful history, that their color, not their character, is what defines them,” the narrator in the ad states.

Manchester NAACP President James McKim said Waldeck’s statements prove that he’s trying to limit discussion and that he misunderstands what Critical Race Theory is about. McKim also said the bill runs counter to New Hampshire’s approach to government, which enshrines the local control of education.

“This is state-level legislation, and discussions about what is taught is a local decision,” McKim said.

O’Neill said her office recently reviewed data from the Division of Children, Youth and Families as part of the efforts to overhaul the child services system and found significant disparities existed based on race.

While children of color represent only 16% of the state population, they represented 37% of detention admissions in 2019 and 22% of new probation cases.

And though diversion programs exist to keep at-risk youth out of juvenile detention, only 1% of those given the opportunity were Black kids, compared to white children, which made up 80% of those diverted, in 2019 and 2020. Black children make up 2% of the overall youth population, and 83% of the state's youth are white.

O’Neill said some of that could be attributed to the demographics of certain parts of the state, but training on unconscious bias for everyone from police to school administrators is also an important step to making sure children of color aren’t treated more harshly.

Law enforcement leaders appear to agree. The New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council recently expanded its diversity and cultural bias training to 16 hours over two days as part of recent efforts to improve how law enforcement interfaces with minority groups.

And on Wednesday, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion wrote a letter to the governor expressing “grave concerns” regarding the language approved by the Senate Finance Committee, saying it would “chill honest, frank, and robust discussions that are central to ongoing efforts to make New Hampshire a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive place.”

Commissioner Robert Quinn of the Department of Safety was among the members who signed the letter.

“If we want to advocate for children, we should be teaching them that they are all individuals with their own unique talents and regardless of their color, gender or creed, they are Americans with limitless potential,” Waldeck said.

McKim said he agreed the goal should be to give equal opportunities to everyone, he said employers and schools need to be able to recognize the unique experiences of everyone.

“If we can’t talk about those unique experiences, we’re denying people the ability to do what we’re espousing they should be doing,” McKim said. “Specifically, teaching our children that they have limitless potential.”

O’Neill said there’s contradictory language in the bill that, on the one hand, expresses an intention to treat everyone equally and prohibit discrimination, but she said the phrasing of the legislation is confusing and ambiguous enough to have a chilling effect on diversity trainings.

Organizations may opt to avoid such training for fear of litigation, she said.

“It appears as though people would be empowered to challenge any kind of training or required discussion about differences of people based on certain characteristics to the point where employers, including state employers, would be somewhat reticent to even require training,” O’Neill said.

Aside from child welfare, O’Neill said actual money used by the state government to provide services would be at stake. Diversity and inclusion trainings are a requirement for several federal grants that the state relies on, she said.

After Thursday’s vote, additional changes to the legislation could result from the committee of conference process, to reconcile the House and Senate versions, before it reaches Sununu’s desk.

Several other organizations have previously come out against the language, including the Business and Industry Association, the Municipal Association, 225 independent businesses and nonprofits, New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility, a dozen leading environmental groups and several public school districts, including Manchester.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated only 1% of Black children in the criminal justice system were given diversion opportunities.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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