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Ohio Republicans propose allowing chaplains in public schools

School bus
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A bill introduced in the Ohio House would allow public schools to employ chaplains to provide support, services and programs to students.

The bill, backed by 10 House Republicans, has been associated with an ongoing student mental health crisis. But it’s sparked concern among some educators and LGBTQ+ supporters.

Ohio House Bill 240 would not require chaplains volunteering or employed at schools to be licensed through the state board of education, though they would have to undergo a background check and may not be hired if they had been found guilty of certain crimes. It leaves it up to school districts to decide whether to employ chaplains and set qualifications.

State Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus (R-Paris Township) is the main sponsor of the bill. Stoltzfus declined an interview with WOSU.

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMuro admits that Ohio schools need more mental health resources, but believes the solution is more properly trained and licensed professionals – not chaplains or volunteers.

He worried that introducing chaplains into a conversation about mental health make take the focus away from trained professionals.

The National School Counselor Association recommends having one counselor for every 250 students, but its most recent data from the 2021-2022 school year shows Ohio schools average about 400 students per counselor, which is roughly in line with the national average.

DiMauro noted that trained professionals know how important it is to make all students feel safe and supported.

“And if [this] opens the door for students to be treated differently because they're part of a religious minority or because their gender or their sexual orientation or identity doesn't comport with a majority religious viewpoint in a particular community, you could actually be exacerbating some of the mental health challenges that some of our students face,” DiMauro said.

LOVEboldly, an Ohio-based nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ Christians, also raised concerns and does not support the bill, calling it an “attempt to breach the separation of church and state, using schools as a battering ram.”

In a statement on its website, the organization writes that “untrained and unlicensed” chaplains could teach their own interpretations of the Bible or attempt to convert students, especially LGBTQ+ students, to their faith or a particular church.

LOVEboldly concludes, “We Christians need to be the ones to say that we do not support HB 240.”

The Ohio bill is nearly identical to a Texas bill passed in June that is set to go into effect on September 1. Unlike that bill, the Ohio bill makes it clear that chaplains cannot replace school counselors, though they could be employed alongside them.

DiMauro said that when the Texas bill moved through the state’s legislature, there were efforts to clarify that parents needed to give permission for students to see chaplains and that chaplains could not proselytize, or attempt to convert, students. He said if the legislation moves forward in Ohio, he hopes issues like those are addressed.

“So, I think there's a lot of questions,” DiMauro said. “I don't think it's clear what the benefit would be, but there are all kinds of questions about potential negative impacts if this legislation's actually going to be considered.”

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.