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Won’t somebody please think of the children?

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Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Feb 20, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Leann Ray
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Won’t somebody please think of the children?
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The West Virginia House of Delegates approved House Bill 4654, which would remove an exemption for schools, libraries and museums from facing criminal liability for providing obscene material to children, on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. The bill does not define obscene. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

There’s been a lot of talk about protecting children and “parental rights” during this legislative session.

But I’m having trouble making sense of their reasoning. Many Republicans seem to think that what a kid reads is not up to that child’s parents. And yet other Republicans voted against a bill on the grounds that parents have every right to cart kids around in a smoke-filled car. In other words, they think books are more dangerous than cigarettes.

Republican lawmakers want to “protect” girls’ sports, and by doing so are also attacking and excluding transgender children, who have a higher rate of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

In order to “protect” children, West Virginia lawmakers want to arm teachers and retired law enforcement officers, saying there’s a shortage of law enforcement in the state. 

House Bill 4299 would allow teachers and principals in elementary or secondary schools to carry concealed firearms — after completing a background check and training — on school grounds and would be known as school protection officers. 

Now, let’s piece some things together here. Teachers have been having discipline issues in elementary schools. Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, has said that students are throwing things at teachers, spitting on them, hitting, kicking, punching and biting them. Now are those children immediately going to respect their armed teacher, or are they going to try to overpower them and steal their weapon?

About 91% of school shooters are former students. Is it fair to expect a teacher to be able to shoot and kill someone they know and possibly cared about? 

Let’s look at the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas. While one shooter killed 19 students and two teachers, 376 law enforcement officers responded, but it took more than an hour for anyone to take out the shooter. It’s unfair to expect teachers, who won’t have extensive  training like the police, to take out a threat.

And what about misplaced guns? A Pennsylvania teacher resigned after leaving her gun in a bathroom where students later found it. In 2018, a substitute teacher in Florida had a loaded gun fall out of the waistband of his pants when he was showing third graders how to do a back flip. 

Another way Republicans lawmakers want to “help” children is by loosening work permit restrictions.

House Bill 5159 would remove requirements that 14- and 15-year-olds need to obtain a work permit from a school superintendent and a work permit from the place of employment. It would also remove the requirement of a written description of the jobs the child is expected to perform. 

And while it may not seem like a big deal, it’s just the first step. 

Last March, Arkansas passed a new law to eliminate work permits and age verification for workers younger than 16. 

A Florida-based lobbying group, the Foundation for Government Accountability was behind that legislation and similar legislation in several other Republican legislative majorities that will strip child workplace protections. 

In May, Iowa’s governor signed into law loosened restrictions on child labor, such as minors over age 16 can sell and serve alcohol in restaurants while kitchens remain open, 14- and 15-year-olds can work longer hours and more hours a week, and 16- and 17-year-olds can seek exemptions to work in restricted fields with dangerous working conditions as part of a work-study program or employer training, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch

Iowa’s law would also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in demolition, heavy manufacturing and to operate certain power-driven machines. It turns out, Iowa’s law conflicts with federal regulations on dangerous workplaces. 

Earlier this month, Florida’s House of Representatives approved rolling back child labor restrictions to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work more than 30 hours a week, and there would be no legal requirement for breaks. 

A teacher told Florida lawmakers about a student she has who falls asleep in class every day because he’s too tired after working long hours late every night after school. The student apologized and explained he had trouble prioritizing school work over his job because he has to help his family financially. She’s worried if that’s happening under current laws — which only allows students to work 30 per week — what would happen when students who are in the same position can work more hours. 

First legislators loosen restrictions on work permits in the state, making it easier for children to work. Then next year they can loosen restrictions again like Florida and Iowa, and let children work longer hours in dangerous conditions, all promoted as parental rights.

Instead of increasing pay to entice adult workers, companies can fill those open jobs with children who don’t know their rights and are too scared to question anything. Children who are depending on those jobs to help their struggling families. 

According to the Department of Labor, between 2028 and 2022, federal regulators opened 4,144 child labor violation cases for 15,462 children nationally.

If lawmakers really are worried about protecting West Virginia children, start with the thousands who are in foster care, and address issues with Child Protective Services. There’s no need to manufacture problems when huge ones already exist.