EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — With a state law requiring the district to take action and members of the community expressing concerns, the township Board of Education created a compromise in its latest version of the district’s proposed policy for transgender students that was debuted at Tuesday’s workshop meeting.
The school board did not take a vote on the final reading of the policy, but many in the crowd of nearly 100 residents who attended this week’s meeting stood to speak about it.
Several of Tuesday’s attendees were dressed in purple, a color that signifies support for the LGBTQ community, and although they thanked the board for taking a step to implement the policy, several spoke out against a change regarding parental notification.
The heavily amended proposal includes the elimination of language stating that “the school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required,” a sticking point for residents at last month’s meeting.
The policy now states that the superintendent or designee “shall ensure that students with gender identity or expression concerns and their parents/guardians shall be given the opportunity to discuss these issues and participate in the educational planning and programming for their students.”
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“However, based on the age, grade, maturity, and other factors relating to the student, the superintendent or designee may notify parents/guardians about the student’s asserted gender identity or expression; prior to any staff member calling or referring to the student by a name other than their birth name or derivative,” the policy reads. “Students who do not want their parents/guardians to know about their transgender status shall be addressed on a case-by-case basis.”
Jake Sanders, a transgender resident of the township, told the school board that the reason the state-issued transgender policy guidance said parental consent is not needed for a student to be recognized as transgender at the school was because it could lead to family rejection, putting the student at risk.
Egg Harbor Township High School senior Sarah Serneabad, 18, a member of the Gay Straight Alliance club, said not passing a policy would put transgender students at risk of health problems from avoiding eating, drinking and using the bathroom while at school.
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“The transgender community already has gone through an excessive amount of hardships,” she said. “I urge everyone skeptical of this policy to reconsider their stance on the issue.”
Township resident Mike Merlino said he spoke out against the transgender policy three years ago when it was up for a vote and he was still against it. He said it was not the will of the community, but rather a progressive, liberal agenda.
“It always seems that someone who screams the loudest is able to get their way,” Merlino said. “I don’t believe what we’re discussing here today is a reflection of our community.”
Others said they are not afraid of transgender students, but rather think that cisgender students would try to take advantage of the bathroom policy.
“When you have kids who know how to play the game, you’re going to have individuals who are going to take advantage of the protections afforded to others for their own jolly,” said resident George Moore.
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Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick attended the meeting and sat with several attendees dressed in purple.
“This is the law. You have to pass a policy. I think you’ve put a lot of thought into it. I applaud you being inclusive and caring for all the children in Egg Harbor Township,” Fitzpatrick told the board.
Assistant Superintendent Stephen Santilli, who presented the revisions to the transgender policy Tuesday night, said the opening paragraphs were modified to remove references to the law but keep intact the intent of the policy, which he said was about inclusion.
“My opinion is it kind of softened it a little bit,” Santilli said.
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He said the changes to parental notification created a balance between a parent’s right to know information about their child and a particular child’s situation.
In addition, Santilli said members of the school board toured the schools’ bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities that would be affected by the policy to see where privacy improvements could be made.
The policy changes the language regarding access to facilities to make clear that any student who is uncomfortable using a sex-segregated restroom or locker room will be provided with an alternative.
“A transgender student shall not be required to use a locker room or restroom that conflicts with the student’s gender identity or expression consistently asserted at school,” the policy states.
The policy does not address concerns presented by residents about gender identity and school sports except to state that “all students will be allowed to participate in a manner consistent with their gender identity and consistent with New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association NJSIAA by-laws.”
The final vote on the policy is scheduled for Nov. 26.