Senate bills address school background checks, mental health absences

A bill about background checks for adult students on school campuses could finally be passed this year, its sponsor said before the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee on Tuesday.

The committee heard SB 40, sponsored by Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, which would require criminal background checks on any adults requesting enrollment in a course on school property when K-12 students are present.

Thompson Rehder said the bill hasn't been "contentious," but it hasn't made it across the finish line because it's been tied to larger omnibus bills that were voted down.

She said the issue came to her attention several years ago when she was approached by a welding teacher who had adult students on campus during school hours.

"'We want people to be able to get their welding certificate as adults, and we're okay with them being in blended classrooms,' he said. 'But even the lunch ladies have to have a background check,'" Thompson Rehder recounted to the committee. "And he said, 'It really dawned on me when I overheard a conversation of one gentleman talking to a 16-year-old girl that was sitting next to him and talking about his time spent in jail for making meth."

To help the bill get across the finish line, Thompson Rehder said she sought to add in other background check bills, including one by Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, which would require employees, contractors, owners and volunteers in licensed residential care facilities to be fingerprinted. It would also include a provision requiring background checks for employees and owners at recreational marijuana facilities. Currently, that is required only for medical marijuana facilities.

The committee voted to pass a bill allowing elective courses on the Bible in schools.

It also voted to pass a substitute version of a bill that would prohibit a school staff member from encouraging a student under 18 to "adopt a gender identity or sexual orientation."

The substitute bill also requires school officials to notify parents within 24 hours if a student expresses "discomfort or confusion about the student's official identity" or asks to be referred to by "personal pronouns that are associated with a gender other than the student's official identity."

Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said that could pose a risk to students who might be kicked out of their homes by parents.

Sen. Lauren Arthur said she supports the right of parents to have a say in how their children are raised but also feels that the Legislature has a responsibility to protect child well-being.

Her concern with such legislation is that it elevates the rights of the parents "over the well-being of children."

"I don't know what the right balance is. It feels like ... this body is taking a pretty heavy hand in intervening and saying what is right for individual families, and making sort of a blanket policy when we know that families come in all forms," Arthur said.

Sen. Rick Brattin said children will make decisions that are not in their own best interests if parents don't guide them.

"It is incumbent upon us to pass laws to ensure that parents are the ones directing the well-being of their children," he said.

The committee passed the substitute bill, which will head to the Senate floor.

It also heard SB 122, sponsored by Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, which would allow students to be excused from school for mental or behavioral health concerns if the school receives documentation from a mental health professional.

"When students are feeling physically unwell, there is universal understanding that they should stay home and take time to feel better. Our mental health should be treated the same way," May said.

Jeanette Mott Oxford spoke on behalf of Paraquad Incorporated, an independent living center in St. Louis. Mott Oxford said she'd like to see some language that would ensure schools don't use the law as a loophole for removal of a student they deem "inconvenient" by encouraging them to stay home.