HOLMDEL – Walk around the local high school lobby and you see signs of support for inclusion and a bulletin board promoting a student Gay Straight Alliance Club.
This is, board of education members said during Wednesday night’s meeting, a very welcoming environment. All students are special and wonderful is how one board member put it.
But how will such a rosy view of high school life in this Monmouth County town survive the “culture wars?”
Wednesday’s meeting saw the board in a 5-3 vote with one abstention rescind a state recommended policy governing how transgender students are treated. The controversial part of the policy reads that a district “shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required.”
School boards across the state adopted this policy a few years ago, some believing it was mandatory. But it surfaced during a court hearing earlier this year that it is not.
That propelled the policy and its transgender protections into the middle of the current battle over gay rights, school curriculum and by extension, the upcoming legislative elections. Republicans, in fact, are making “parents’ rights” a centerpiece of their campaign.
Only a small number of school boards have actually repealed the policy, but many are debating it. A lot of this is a sideshow. Whether the policy exists or not, state law bans discrimination against gay and transgender students.
Still, as we saw in Holmdel, the policy has become a litmus test of sorts for board members’ sentiments on gay rights.
There was much heated rhetoric from both the public and the board with one member talking about “genital mutilation,” which some see as a particularly offensive remark.
Such over-the-top comments aside, supporters of retaining the policy included Michael Gottesman, founder of the New Jersey Public Education Coalition, a group formed to oppose conservative takeovers of school boards.
He defended the policy as a “child-centered approach” that is consistent with state law.
Others said the policy gives comfort to gay and transgender students who one person said, “are under attack,” They said gay and trans students are more likely to commit, or try to commit, suicide than straight students. The policy works, so why change it? That point was made too.’
Those opposing the policy said it “alienates parents.”
Others were more dramatic, citing “sinister people grooming children” and “wokeness.”
One man claimed that it’s the state’s goal under Phil Murphy to destroy traditional families.
It was hard to find any sort of common ground amid all this, but one of the board members who voted no urged that the discussion simply be tabled so the board could devise a similar – but better – policy.
That didn’t happen and the aforementioned vote occurred.
Still, the board majority on this issue pledged to craft a new policy with one member predicting – a bit boldly perhaps – that it may satisfy the critics.
Before leaving this episode, there was some irony here.
The debate on the transgender policy was preceded by a lengthy presentation on bullying in the district.
That is precisely what advocates for gay students say they worry about.