by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
Disagreements over a rejected parental rights draft bill led to verbal altercations between a state senator and a candidate for state superintendent that twice involved the Idaho State Police.
On Tuesday, Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, and Branden Durst, a former state senator and current candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, presented the bill to the Senate Education Committee. It died on a tied 4-4 vote and was not printed for introduction.
The committee considered the parental rights proposal after a series of budget presentations from the State Department of Education, which the superintendent oversees.
“My objection to that bill was that it had a civil penalty for a school district,” Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sandpoint, told Idaho Reports on Tuesday evening. “I don’t know that there’s any precedent that we’re going to start having our schools pay fines. We correct the situation when there’s a problem.”
Woodward told Idaho Reports that after the hearing, Durst “came right to me” and said “something along the lines of, ‘That was a bad vote, you should not have done that. We’re going to use that in your f—ing campaign. Herndon has a copy of this bill.’ Which is Scott Herndon, who’s my opponent in the primary.”
Herndon is an anti-abortion activist and the current chairman of the Bonner County Republican Central Committee.
“And so I said, ‘Are you threatening me?’ I leaned into him. And then the ISP officers came in and it kind of toned down,” Woodward said.
Committee member Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, confirmed to Idaho Reports that a confrontation took place and that ISP was involved.
“I did not hear anything, but I did see Branden get into Sen. Woodward’s face,” Ward-Engelking said. “And then I did see the Idaho State Police come in and talk to Branden Durst and kind of escort him out.”
Woodward said he and fellow committee member Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, returned to the Senate offices, where Durst showed up again.
“He came up to that office suite and we had another discussion. And that went about the same, and then he left,” Woodward said. “There was never any physical contact, but there were definitely some words exchanged. He knows right where I stand.”
ISP was present at the Senate offices as well, Woodward said.
Ward-Engelking said she heard an ISP trooper near the Senate offices describe Durst’s behavior as “unbecoming of a former senator.”
Idaho Reports has asked the Idaho State Police for their account of the incident, and filed public records requests with ISP and the Department of Administration.
“He got in my face, so I got back,” Woodward said. “I was hoping it would kind of just die away. But, you know, it’d probably be better to have my side of it out there too.”
At the beginning of the Senate Education hearing, committee chairman Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said Durst’s proposal was one of several bills expected on parental education rights this session. He didn’t commit to holding a hearing on the proposals, but said he wanted to start a discussion.
“Eh, we can try again next year once we have primaried Woodward and Crabtree right out of there,” Idaho GOP Region I chairman Bjorn Handeen tweeted Tuesday evening.
When contacted on Tuesday night, Durst gave this comment via Twitter direct message: “An ethics investigation into Senator Woodward’s conduct may be forthcoming. His decision to spew profanities and put his finger in my chest is conduct unbecoming of a Senator. Senate leadership has been contacted.”
Durst tweeted from his campaign account later that night, “Unfortunately, two so-called Republican Senators joined with liberal Democrats on the Senate Education Committee this afternoon to keep Idaho from [banning critical race theory and mask mandates in schools]. Very troubling. Republicans need to know how their Senators are voting[.]”
Durst elaborated to Idaho Reports on Wednesday: “Senator Zito and I have requested that ISP retain the video from yesterday, which I am completely confident will corroborate my version of the events. It’s no secret that the senators in question are supporters of my opponent. This is a political hit job and the people of Idaho need to know this is how their Senate is being run.”
Idaho Education News reported that Senate leadership met Wednesday morning to discuss the incident but did not give further comment.
An ISP spokesperson responded to Idaho Reports on Wednesday evening: “Idaho State Police Troopers at the Capitol interact with dozens of legislators and citizens daily. In the interaction you asked about, no enforcement action was taken.”
Here’s coverage of the introductory bill hearing from Kevin Richert and Blake Jones at Idaho Education News:
The first parental rights bill of the 2022 session died Tuesday, when a deadlocked Senate Education Committee refused to print it.
Co-authored by Republican state superintendent’s candidate Branden Durst and Hammett Republican Sen. Christy Zito, the “Idaho Parental Freedom in Education Act” would have allowed parents to review all documents pertaining to their child’s education, visit school buildings and classrooms “without prior consent or notification,” and refuse the use of medical devices or treatments.
“Parents’ rights to make decisions for their children are not granted from the government, but are divinely given,” the bill read in part.
Durst, a former legislator and Senate Education member, said his bill reflects a variety of parental concerns — about access to schools and mask requirements.
“(Parents) are feeling very frustrated,” said Durst, who added that he had received an “overwhelming” response to the bill on social media.
The reaction from senators was considerably less enthusiastic.
Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, expressed concern with the bill’s “adversarial” tone, and a clause that would leave a school subject to a $1,000 civil penalty. Durst said the penalties would only apply to a school that was “obstinate” in its refusal to comply.
Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, said he was concerned the bill would put schools in the middle of child custody disputes. Durst, who works as a child custody mediator, said schools routinely navigate child custody agreements, and realize that a noncustodial parent has no right to take a child from school.
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, questioned language requiring schools to offer alternative assignments, fearing a “free-for-all.” Durst said the language was a safeguard to ensure high school students stay on path for graduation. “I don’t think it’s likely that many parents would take advantage of that provision.”
Tuesday’s introductory hearing was unorthodox. Typically, legislative committees vote to introduce or “print” bills with little discussion. At the outset of the hearing, Senate Education Chair Steven Thayn said he wanted to start the discussion on parental rights, but didn’t commit to the bill in question.
“There’s several parents’ rights bills floating around the Legislature,” said Thayn, R-Emmett. “I’m not necessarily planning a hearing on this any time soon.”
Durst called his bill a less comprehensive and “watered-down version” of a parental rights bill circulating in the House.
Senate Education voted 4-4 to print the bill, meaning the motion died on a tie vote. The roll call:
Yes: Sens. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Cook; Lent; and Thayn.
No: Sens. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; David Nelson, D-Moscow; Jim Woodward, R-Sagle; and Ward-Engelking.
Absent: Sen. Robert Blair, a substitute for Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.
Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on January 18, 2022
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.