During the course of 14 listening sessions across the state, members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion consistently heard the same issues raised by some of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable communities.
People of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and Granite Staters with disabilities faced harassment in public schools and were often more likely to be disciplined than other students.
Complaints of age discrimination or sexual harassment made to the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights took years to resolve.
And the state’s lack of a robust public transportation system disproportionately affected the ability of certain communities to participate in the civic life of New Hampshire.
The commission, formed by Gov. Chris Sununu by executive order in 2017, is not due to issue its final report until December. But with the support of the governor, and in conjunction with the start of the new legislative session, it has issued a series of recommendations aimed at addressing the Granite State’s solvable inequalities.
“We’re in a budget year. These are the things that can be done that may affect the budget now,” said Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast NAACP and chair of the advisory council. “Everything that was in there are things that the people in the state are asking for and wanting to see happen because it enables them to live better lives. We’re talking about individuals who have issues, given their particular circumstance, that may not be visible to the general public.”
The advisory council’s report contains five specific legislative recommendations:
Enact a state law that specifically prohibits discrimination in public schools based on race, color, sex, religion, natural origin, mental or physical disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
Following the passage of a law last year that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, add that group to the list of protected classes in 13 related anti-discrimination laws.
Identify funding for a public transportation system that will connect vulnerable communities with the social, medical, and economic services they require.
Increase funding for the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights.
Provide resources for school districts that want to improve their diversity and inclusion practices.
Legislative leaders and the governor, who were inaugurated on Thursday, are reviewing the recommendations and have not yet weighed in on any specific legislation.
“I would like to thank the Council on Diversity and Inclusion for their extensive work over the past year,” Sununu said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing their recommendations and to seeing the council continue their work to ensure that New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, has an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and make a better life for themselves and their families.”
Some of the requests, particularly the call for more investment in public transportation, will require funding at a time when Sununu has called for no tax increases and Democratic leaders are eager to pursue their own campaign promises.
But stakeholders say relatively small investments can make a big difference.
Matt Mayberry, the chair of the Commission for Human Rights, for example, has requested funding for an additional two full-time and one part-time positions.
“We get about one filed complaint a day in the state of New Hampshire about discrimination,” he said, and over the years, the understaffed commission has not been able to keep up.
“We have over 500 cases that are pending before the Commission on Human Rights,” Mayberry added. “It takes almost two years now from the time you call to make a formal complaint to the time we can adjudicate it.”
One of the major areas for improvement the advisory council identified through its listening sessions was “persistent discrimination and inequalities in schools, and the inadequacy of available resolution and redress processes.”
Students of color and with certain disabilities are subjected to more severe discipline that often leads to them missing classroom time, according to the report. Combined with bullying and the lack of specialized programs in some districts, it can force students from the school system to the criminal justice system.
“Given that there have been some pretty significant racial issues that have occurred over the last couple years, we as an association have started to focus on this with our membership,” said Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
Just last month, the Dover School District placed on administrative leave a teacher who allowed students to sing a song about the KKK for a class project.
“Most folks think that New Hampshire is pretty homogeneous when we’re not,” Ladd said. “Besides racial issues there are other socio-economic equity issues that we need to grapple with in public schools … As our state becomes more diverse, I think we need to become more aware of what those equity issues are and create environments in which students feel comfortable.”
Some districts have used their own money to bring in experts to help them develop proactive policies and curriculum for diverse student bodies. But at the state level, the advisory council found, there is a lack of coordination and resources.
“In many cases, the faculty and administrators knew these issues existed but didn’t feel they had the resources to actually address them,” said Elizabeth Lahey, director of the civil rights unit at the state Department of Justice.