HANOVER – A new school year means “new” things, but as school opens here Thursday, one thing hasn’t changed since last June:
A board of education policy requiring school staff to inform parents if a child exhibits gay or transgender behavior remains blocked by the courts.
That’s the bottom line after a second hearing Wednesday before Judge Stuart Minkowitz in state Superior Court, Morristown.
As he did during the first hearing in late May, Minkowitz expressed doubt about the policy despite a revision by the district.
During a colloquy with school board lawyer Matthew Giacobbe, the judge said the policy allows no discretion, opens the door to discrimination of a protected class and, actually, “invites interference with the parent child relationship.”
To some, that’s a head-turning observation.
After all, supporters of the Hanover policy – and similar ones around the state – have coalesced around the mantle of “parents’ rights.”
The judge’s apparent point was that the parent-child relationship is at its best if a child talks about his sexual orientation with his parents without involvement of school staff.
Taken further, far better for parents to learn such private matters from their child as opposed to the school principal.
Minkowitz kept a temporary hold on the policy, but said he would decide later this month if it should be on hold “permanently.” In this case, permanently means until the merits of the case are resolved by the state Division of Civil Rights.
So the status quo remains. Of which, Deputy Attorney General James Michael, who argued the case for the state, said, “There is no indication any child in Hanover has been harmed.”
All this began in mid-May when the board adopted its new, parental notification policy regarding gay students. The state Attorney General promptly sued and Minkowitz put a temporary hold on the new policy, which continues.
What prompted the board to act is unknown. However, one must take note of today’s climate regarding public education. Conservative groups across the country have organized to oppose schools “promoting” the gay lifestyle, library books deemed inappropriate and “critical race theory.” Hanover is a very Republican town.
The judge at the earlier hearing urged both sides to work together on a compromise policy.
And the board did indeed make revisions.
A key change requires school staff to notify parents if students exhibit behaviors that “may have an adverse impact” on their health, safety or well-being. But it specifically states that such notification can not “be based solely on a student’s actual and/or perceived protected characteristics” under state anti-discrimination laws. There is no mention of sexuality or gender.
The judge agreed with DAG Michael, who said the word “solely” was problematic in that it opened the door for parental notification of gay students – just like the original policy.
Or in other words, student sexuality could still trigger notification as long as other factors were present.
Minkowitz said he was also troubled by such amorphous verbiage in the revised policy as “adverse impact.”
Giacobbe argued unsuccessfully that the revised policy represented a major change and that the whole debate could come down to something basic – like a teacher seeing and saying, “There’s something wrong with this kid.”
He meant “wrong” in terms of mental, physical or emotional problems.
The judge was not convinced.
The courtroom was not packed, but there were representatives from both sides in attendance. Two people with a sign supporting parents’ rights stood outside the courthouse, but not for long.
There was also a state Board of Education meeting scheduled for Wednesday and activists were expected at that one too.
This public school “war” has many fronts.