OCEAN CITY — Students, parents and some teachers gathered Sunday morning on the Boardwalk and marched around Ocean City High School in a public display of support for LGBTQ students in the district.
The gathering was in part a response to an earlier demonstration near City Hall, held Sept. 8, supporting legislation to create a parent’s bill of rights and criticizing new state education standards. Organizers of that event say they did not intend to exclude anyone, but those gathered Sunday point to derogatory remarks made about gay and nonbinary people during the earlier event.
“We belong,” shouted those gathered outside the school, some carrying signs or waving rainbow flags. Several participants wore T-shirts that said, “We Belong.”
New state education standards enacted in 2020 and going into effect this year have become a flashpoint of controversy in Ocean City, especially elements related to sexuality and gender identity. After a close vote by the Board of Education in August, a new group called the Ocean City Alliance for Sensible Education, led by Robin Shaffer, vowed to keep the pressure up for their repeal.
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Shaffer ran unsuccessfully for school board last year and is again on the ballot this year for a one-year unexpired term. He’s one of three candidates for that seat, and there are six candidates for three full terms on the school board this year.
In several public statements, Shaffer said the rally Sept. 8 was in peaceful support of the rights of parents, and argued it is the other side that has engaged in threats and intimidation.
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On Sunday, before the march began, Bob Merkh called on participants not to engage with critics. He said some may seek to provoke a reaction, and called on participants to take the high road.
Merkh is a middle school social studies teacher in Upper Township, one of the districts that sends students to Ocean City High School.
After the Sept. 8 rally, parents and community members formed their own organization, “We Belong Cape May County,” which organized the event Sunday.
Several current and former students participated, including Jakob Pender, who was among the speakers at the graduation for the class of 2022, during which they discussed the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What a long, strange trip it has been,” Pender said at the graduation, describing Ocean City High School as a refuge, providing stability and structure in a rapidly changing world.
Now a student at Rutgers University, Pender is nonbinary. On Sunday, Pender said, “I don’t think I would have had the opportunities in high school that I did if I had been out.”
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Participating in the march was a way of helping future students participate fully in school life while being themselves, Pender said.
Also at the event Sunday, Nate Ginet, a senior at Ocean City High School, said his senior year has been going well, with visits to colleges and participation in school activities. Joined by his mother, Pam Ginet, he said he has been working to create a PRISM club, what he said has been described as a Gay/Straight Alliance in other districts.
In some school districts, the acronym for PRISM is listed as Pride, Raising awareness, Involvement, Support, Mentoring.
So far, Ginet said, he has not been able to get the club started. He thought the district approval would come over the summer, but now he hopes to have a club underway and meeting regularly by December, or at least before he graduates.
“I hope it would be a safe space where people could gather and feel comfortable being themselves,” Ginet said.
More than 100 people participated Sunday. As the group walked around the outside of the building, there seemed to be little reaction or even notice. The Boardwalk was crowded on a hot morning, and the city was getting ready for an airshow along the beach and Boardwalk that afternoon.
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Some at the event said someone yelled, “Yay, liberals,” presumably sarcastically, but drivers passing the scene honked in apparent support, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Afterward, participants gathered to discuss future steps. Some say they plan to attend an upcoming school board meeting, at which members of the Ocean City Alliance for Sensible Education also indicate they will again address the board.
Shaffer indicates it was never his intention to marginalize or exclude LGBTQ students or anyone else. In written comments, Shaffer described it as “incontrovertible” that those students belong in Ocean City schools, but also suggests that most of those signing an online petition live far outside Ocean City.
Those criticizing his group cite comments made by the Rev. Gregory Quinlan at the Sept. 8 event, saying he spoke harshly about the LGBTQ community.
Organizers of the event Sunday argue the rhetoric around the issue further traumatizes students who may already face bullying and discrimination.
“We are not Democratic operatives. We are parents, teachers, professionals, students, alumni, neighbors, and business people,” reads a statement from Christine Stanford announcing the start of the “We Belong” organization. “We are local Ocean City and Cape May County families who are fighting against the type of speech that Shaffer’s speaker brought to Ocean City — hate speech, bigotry, and coded language to refer to the LGBTQ+ community as ‘political’ and ‘indoctrination.’”
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