A bill that would require substitute teachers to be trained on appropriate classroom behavior has passed in the Senate — coming in response to an incident last year when a Utah substitute snapped at a fifth grade boy being adopted by two gay dads and told him that “homosexuality is a sin.”
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, aims at preventing something like that from happening again, she said Monday. Her proposal would mandate that all substitutes hired by a temp agency, like the one who “said inappropriate things” to the boy, undergo special training on ethics and sensitivity with a school district before they can work with its students.
The training could be a lecture, a handout or whatever districts choose. “It’s open,” Mayne said. “This is just to make sure that the person going into the classroom knows what the code of conduct is,” she added about SB198.
Since “that unpleasant event” in November, Mayne said, she has heard of other similar disturbances — mostly in districts that work with a staffing company to hire substitutes. That includes Alpine School District in Utah County, where the incident that prompted the senator to draft the bill occurred and which contracts with Kelly Services.
The substitute was working at the time at Deerfield Elementary School. On Nov. 21, a week before Thanksgiving, the woman asked students: “What are you thankful for this year?” An 11-year-old boy responded, “I’m thankful that I’m finally going to be adopted by my two dads.”
Students later said that the substitute snapped, “Why on earth would you be happy about that?” And for the next 10 minutes she lectured the 30 kids about her own views, how “homosexuality is wrong” and “two men living together is a sin.” She looked at the boy, too, and told him: “That’s nothing to be thankful for.”
She was escorted out of the school after three girls walked out of the room and told the principal. She was later fired from the temp agency, which works with all school districts in Utah County, many throughout the state and thousands nationwide.
One of the boy’s dads, Louis van Amstel, posted about the incident on social media after his son, Daniel, told him what happened. It drew widespread attention.
In Utah, there’s little in state code regulating substitute teaching, and there’s no mandatory training required for those pinch-hitting in the classroom. Mayne said she’s starting with temp agencies this year but may expand in the future.
Her bill originally failed on the Senate floor last week. But she revived it Monday and added some amendments to not burden rural districts. It then passed on a 25-2 vote.
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, one of the lawmakers who opposed it, questioned why the measure was needed to respond to one specific incident when that substitute was already fired. “I just think that this bill is the wrong prescription for a problem that has already been solved,” he said.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, is a current teacher and countered that there should be minimum standards for anyone working with children — particularly substitutes who are in the classroom for seven hours a day. “We need to have qualified people taking care of our kids,” she said. “And how do we know this isn’t happening more?”
Mayne’s bill goes next to the House for consideration.
With the substitute teacher who yelled at the boy, it’s unclear how long she’d been teaching at the school or elsewhere in the state. Neither the district nor the company identified her. Both said she had been through “extensive training” before that day but did not directly answer if any lessons were focused on diversity or sensitivity.
Louis van Amstel, who was previously a dancer on “Dancing with the Stars,” said his son was terrified after the incident and afraid he wouldn’t be adopted because of it. The family went on national television where 11-year-old Daniel said, “Even if she didn’t like it, she didn’t have to say that. But I’m glad she got her lesson taught.”
He was adopted by Louis and Josh van Amstel in December.