by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
TRENTON, NJ — After Hanover public school officials passed a policy earlier this month requiring administrators to notify parents about their child’s sexuality or gender expression, the response was swift and severe.
The state attorney general filed a civil rights complaint the next day to block it, and a judge quickly ordered it suspended pending a hearing.
But that parental notification policy is just one in a wave of actions public school leaders across New Jersey have taken that LGBTQ advocates decry as an attack on transgender and gay youth.
Officials in some districts have caved to parental pressure and pulled books with LGBTQ themes from library shelves and classrooms. Others have ordered rainbow signs and flags to be removed. Some districts are flouting new state-mandated standards on sex education, designating delicate topics as “at-home learning standards.” Others have ignored a 2019 state law directing schools to implement curriculum teaching students the history and societal contributions of LGBTQ people.
In a progressive state like New Jersey, some say these actions are less a matter of resistance and more the reflection of fear among teachers and administrators that strides made to promote inclusivity instead will worsen the parental uproar and litigation that has erupted in recent years as gender politics polarizes.
“Right now, we’re in a really scary time,” said Melinda Mangin, a professor at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. “When I’m talking to educators, they report a surprising amount of trepidation about tackling LGBTQ issues in their classrooms and schools, even in places where I think there’s a longstanding understanding that those are districts that are considered more progressive, more blue.”
Mangin, whose research focuses on how school leaders support gender-diverse students, authored the 2020 book “Transgender Students in Elementary School: Creating an Affirming and Inclusive School Culture.”
“Educators want to be able to teach the students in their classrooms, and they don’t want to be distracted by all sorts of hyperbole and drama,” Mangin said. “But there’s a fear that doing one’s job in line with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum could draw unwanted attention that could keep them from doing the work of showing up every day, teaching students without distraction and staying focused on content, and meeting benchmarks.”
While Hanover might have been the first district in New Jersey to pass a parental notification policy relating to gender identity, others are considering it, including Colts Neck and Marlboro.
Three states — Alabama, Indiana, and North Dakota — mandate such notification, which critics call “forced outing” of children to their parents. Another five states have laws promoting it and more states have considered similar legislation, according to the nonprofit Movement Advancement Project.
New Jersey officials have taken a far different approach.
“We will always stand up for the LGBTQ+ community here in New Jersey and look forward to presenting our arguments in court in this matter,” Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a statement after filing a May 17 civil rights complaint against Hanover Township Public Schools.
It also violates the state’s Law Against Discrimination by subjecting transgender, gay, and gender non-conforming students — and not their cis-gender peers — to parental notification, the complaint states. And by outing students to their parents, it exposes them to possible harm to their safety and mental health, it states.
In a brief filed this week, attorney Matthew J. Giacobbe, who represents Hanover schools, accused Platkin of “eviscerating a duly enacted policy and infringing the constitutional rights of parents in the upbringing of their children.”
“Plaintiffs have brought a facial challenge asking this court to rule that no school board can ever establish a policy that states a parent should be informed about critical sexual or gender issues involving their children when they are brought to the school’s attention, even when trained and licensed education professionals believe that these issues are having a material impact on a child’s physical and/or mental health, safety, and/or emotional well-being,” Giacobbe wrote. “This is a fairly astonishing and totally unprecedented proposition.”
The case is set to be heard Tuesday in Morris County.
When I’m talking to educators, they report a surprising amount of trepidation about tackling LGBTQ issues in their classrooms and schools.
– Melinda Mangin, Rutgers University education professor
Long before the Hanover hubbub, several Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to protect transgender students’ privacy, including from parents.
Assemblywomen Mila Jasey, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, and Sadaf Jaffer introduced a bill last year that would codify the confidentiality the state Department of Education now expects of local school officials in matters involving transgender, transitioning, and gender-questioning students. Administrators would have to defer to students’ preference on parental communications under the bill, which is stalled in the Assembly’s education committee.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Republican whose Morris County district includes Hanover, knows the school board members who approved the policy.
“They’re really well-intentioned people who just want to love their kids and give other parents in Hanover Township the ability to love their kids at a time when they need them the most,” Webber said. “And the governor and the attorney general coming in and saying, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ I think is really misguided and, at some level, offensive.”
Webber traded barbed tweets last week with Gov. Phil Murphy on the issue, writing: “Keeping secrets about kids from their parents is the stuff of authoritarians & shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Christian Fuscarino heads Garden State Equality, the state’s leading advocacy group for LGBTQ rights.
Besides respecting students’ right to privacy, Fuscarino said, there’s a concrete reason to let students themselves decide whether to inform their families of their gender identity or transition.
“When you pass policies like this, you’re not only creating an unsafe learning environment, but you’re potentially putting these young people at risk of being kicked out of their homes,” he said. “LGBTQ youth represent over 40% of the youth homeless population.”
Students typically are the best judge of whether or not it’s safe for them to come out at home, Mangin said.
“Teachers are mandatory reporters if a student is facing harm, but being queer doesn’t cause harm, and many times the source of harm could actually be family,” she said.
Beyond parental notification, local school boards have increasingly become arbiters in debates about banning books, as community members, fanned by national conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, have pushed to censor school materials with LGBTQ and racial themes or by LGBTQ writers and authors of color.
“Parents can be quite vocal, but it’s a pretty small minority of loud parents who often are talking about topics they don’t really understand,” Mangin said. “There’s a lot of fear-mongering that blows things out of proportion in a way that isn’t commensurate with what’s actually happening in classrooms.”
An analysis by the Washington Post of challenges to books in 153 school districts found 11 parents were responsible for the majority of the 1,000-plus complaints.
While school boards in New Jersey towns including Bernards Township, Sparta, and Washington Township have removed books from shelves, others, including Glen Ridge, North Hunterdon, and Roxbury, have rejected such requests after raucous public meetings.
In Hamilton Wednesday night, board member Christina Vassiliou Harvey delivered a fiery 20-minute defense of “Gender Queer,” the Maia Kobabe graphic memoir that has become the most challenged book in the country. Harvey serves on a board committee that weighs book removal requests.
“Books exist as a safe place for people to learn,” Harvey said. “To think that simply reading a book will automatically cause a person to repeat behavior in a book would mean people who read ‘Of Mice and Men’ will kill their brother, people who read ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ will use copious amounts of illegal drugs, and people who read ‘In Cold Blood’ will commit murder in cold blood. There is simply no basis for this statement.”
The committee rejected the book challenge. Four other books — three others with LGBTQ themes and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” — also have been challenged in Hamilton.
As book challenges rise, state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have introduced dueling bills on the issue.
Several Democrats introduced a bill this week that would withhold state funding from schools that ban or restrict books from school libraries. Republicans have several bills now stalled in committees that would require districts to post lists of library books, class textbooks, and other school materials online for public view.
Curricula compliance in question
Even when policymakers act to protect LGBTQ students or promote inclusion, local compliance can be tough to gauge or ensure.
After the state Board of Education approved new sex ed standards in 2020, squeamish parents and conservatives packed school board meetings in protest as board members considered and approved new curricula based on the standards.
The consequence, at least in a few districts, was to boot some sex ed lessons back to the parents.
In the Millstone Township School District, the curriculum declares many topics an “at-home learning standard only.” That means students in kindergarten through second grade won’t learn the medically appropriate names of genitals or what reproduction is unless they hear it at home. For Millstone eighth graders, teachers will explain vaginal sex “to some extent,” but leave it to parents to explain oral and anal sex, according to the curriculum.
Robbinsville school officials took a similar approach to Millstone. Online curriculum materials assure parents of Robbinsville’s students in kindergarten through second grade: “There will be no discussion of genitals.”
It’s also unclear how many, or how well, school districts are following the state’s 2019 law requiring them to teach the history and contributions of LGBTQ people.
“In many districts and schools, there is a lack of implementation of the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum,” Mangin said. “When I’m talking to teachers, they tell me they’re pretty sure nobody in the building or in their district is making progressive steps toward that, and we don’t have an accountability arm or ways of checking up on or enforcing it.”
State Department of Education spokespeople did not respond to questions about compliance and other issues.
Keeping secrets about kids from their parents is the stuff of authoritarians & shouldn’t be tolerated.
– Assemblyman Jay Webber
Assemblyman Webber told the New Jersey Monitor he may introduce legislation to require all public schools statewide to implement parental notification policies along the lines of Hanover’s, which he called a “very common sense, very modest measure.”
“It says if there’s a material danger to a kid, for any number of reasons, you got to tell the parents,” Webber said. “It doesn’t matter if the pressure is athletics or academics or peers or alcohol and drugs or any number of pressures or stressors that teens face. You need to involve parents if there’s an issue that endangers the kids’ mental or emotional or even physical well-being. We’d be naive to think that sexuality and issues regarding sexual orientation aren’t a group of stressors that might create mental and emotional challenges for teenagers.”
Fuscarino called parental notification, book bans, and other school decisions that can negatively impact LGBTQ students “insidious manifestations of discrimination.”
“They perpetuate oppression and contribute to the suffering of LGBTQ youth, who are the most vulnerable in our community,” Fuscarino said. “It’s essential that we recognize these anti-LGBTQ policies not just as a change in school policy, but rather an attack on the fundamental rights, dignity, and well-being of LGBTQ students. Our community and allies must fight for the immediate reversal of any policy like this that passes.”
Louise Walpin, one of the lead plaintiffs in the 2013 battle to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey, is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She attended Hamilton’s school board meeting Wednesday to urge board members to resist censorship and other anti-LGBTQ policies and advised them that 80% of transgender people have considered suicide and 40% have tried to take their own lives.
“We know the risk increases due to lack of family support and school support, stigma, bullying, being forced to live in an assigned gender rather than the gender they identify with, and fear of being rejected by others,” Walpin said. “Suicide risk and homelessness can be decreased by a sense of belonging in school, which can only be created by supportive school policies, confidentiality, peer, and family support. Bullying and outing kids in potentially unsafe situations must be curtailed with appropriate policies.”
Fuscarino’s group monitors school boards’ activity on LGBTQ issues statewide and presses policymakers for change. With more than 600 school districts statewide, that can feel like a mammoth task, he said.
“This issue is a beautiful and unfortunate reminder of how all politics are local,” Fuscarino said. “We rely solely on parents to communicate with us what they’re experiencing at the school level.”
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New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.
Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.