EHT school news

EHT school news

Laura Stetser

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A bill to require all New Jersey school boards to provide instruction on and make accommodations for transgender students passed in both the state Assembly and Senate on June 29.

The bill, A-4652 and S-3067, is meant to create a “safe, inclusive and accepting school environment for transgender students.”

Atlantic County legislators Sen. Jim Whelan and Assemblymen Chris Brown and Vince Mazzeo voted in favor of the bill, which was approved 59-15-3 by the Assembly and 25-10 by the Senate. Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove and Sen.  Christopher Connors of 9th Legislative District, which covers parts of Galloway and Port Republic, voted no, and Assemblyman Brian Rumpf did not vote.  It will now head to Gov. Chris Christie for his review.

If approved and signed into law by Christie, the legislation would require the commissioner of education to develop guidelines for school districts regarding the learning environment of transgender students, a step that could provide much-desired clarity for local school districts such as Egg Harbor Township.

Last winter, as the township Board of Education struggled with public outcry both against and in support of a proposed policy on transgender students, it unanimously approved a resolution calling for the state Department of Education to provide "clear" guidance on how the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination pertains specifically to schools.

Amended in 2006 to include gender identity and expression as a protected category, NJLAD prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation. However, it stops short of specifically addressing how school boards should implement the law in schools.

The EHT board, which is being sued by a transgender student for alleged discrimination and harassment he experienced at the high school, voted down the policy in March, but transgender-rights supporters have continued to attend monthly meetings, asking consistently for the board to reconsider the policy.

The new legislation provides specific guidance, including a definition of terms relevant to understanding transgender issues, information on how to maintain confidentiality and privacy concerns regarding a student’s transgender or transitioning status, procedures for maintaining official school records and the use of preferred pronouns that correspond to a student’s gender identity.

The bill also provides for equal opportunities for participation in physical education and in gender-segregated school activities in accordance with the student’s gender identity and use of restrooms and locker rooms. It calls for professional development to ensure staff are knowledgeable about the issues and for the addition of developmentally appropriate pamphlets and books in school libraries, counseling offices and nurse’s offices.

The commissioner also would have to review the guidelines periodically and update them as appropriate in accordance with state or federal laws and regulations concerning the rights of transgender students.

Egg Harbor Township Board of Education President Lou Della Barca said in an email he is "sure our board and district will continue to follow the laws of the state of New Jersey."

Board member Pete Castellano, who helped draft the resolution to the state, said he was pleased to see the legislation making headway.

"If signed, this bill would do exactly what we asked for in the resolution; it would give all N.J. school districts clear and consistent guidance on how to apply the NJ Law Against Discrimination in our schools,” Castellano said. “That specific guidance would make it easier for the board to adopt a policy, as it would clear up much of the confusion we have had to deal with in the past."

Senior Emily McGrath, 17, one of the most vocal supporters of transgender rights within the district, said if signed, the legislation could be a good start — but it's just a start.

“If anything, it would just show EHT’s school board that this is an issue around the whole state, and it would hopefully clarify any questions and concerns for the public,” she said.

McGrath went on to say she would like the district to implement a full plan, not just a policy.

“A policy is not enough to effect the change that is needed, even though that’s a good start,” she said, adding she'd like the district to form a committee to focus on sexual and gender-identity issues.

Assemblywoman Marlene Caride, D-Bergen, Passaic, a sponsor of the bill, said the legislation sends a message that these students matter.

“Schools need to set the right tone. If we cultivated intolerance, children will pick up on that and think it is OK to bully others who are deemed different,” Caride said in a news release. “No one deserves to be mistreated because of who they are. These guidelines send a clear message to transgender children that we support them, and that discrimination and harassment of any form will not be tolerated.”

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