BISMARCK — The Boy Scouts of America are pushing a bill that would require North Dakota schools to provide the organization time to recruit students during the school day.
House Bill 1356 would mandate that schools offer a forum once a year for "youth patriotic" groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to pitch their organizations, but large districts are concerned the legislation would open the floodgates for all kinds of clubs to claim they're owed time for recruitment.
Bismarck Republican Rep. Lisa Meier said she crafted the bill after a similar proposal recently passed in South Dakota. While presenting the bill to the House Education Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 27, Meier noted she has seen first-hand the "awesome opportunities and positive outcomes" that Boy Scouts provides members during her work with the group.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem spoke in favor of the bill, saying he joined the Cub Scouts after a short recruitment session at his school. Stenehjem added that his Boy Scouts experience gave him the confidence to take on public-facing jobs, and he hopes other young boys will reap the same gains.
"A small intrusion (in the school day) can have incredible, enormous benefits," Stenehjem said. "In my current occupation, I see kids who aren't always doing that well, and I know that the involvement in scouting can provide role models and mentoring."
Baden Gilkerson, a Bismarck Eagle Scout, said he learned so many important skills through the organization after a member came to recruit students when he was in elementary school.
The bill has the backing of the Department of Public Instruction, but some school boards oppose the measure on the grounds that it's burdensome and overly broad. Supporters say the legislation is "narrowly tailored" to only afford recruitment opportunities to the Boy Scouts and a few other well-established groups, but Amy De Kok, legal counsel for the North Dakota School Boards Association, doesn't buy it.
De Kok said federal First Amendment laws would require schools to open up to any community organization that wants to recruit during class time if the bill passes. She noted that many schools already allow the Boy Scouts and other groups to hold assemblies, but urban districts fear giving the greenlight to one organization while denying another could lead to legal challenges. De Kok added that the Senate killed similar legislation in 2019 after some districts objected.
"House Bill 1356 may allow for unfettered access to students in terms of content and cause disruption during educational time," De Kok said. "While many of the organizations included in this legislation have noble causes, the idea that a district would be unable to control access ... is ludicrous."
Fargo Public Schools board member Robin Nelson said the bill, if passed, would provide the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts an unfair recruiting advantage over other reputable youth organizations while putting districts and the state in a precarious legal position.
Nelson, who also serves as the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Red River Valley, said the bill would likely help her group, but she still opposes the legislation "due to its misdirected effort to benefit one organization that may be experiencing difficulty in recruiting and retaining membership."
The education committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday.