Barnegat joins growing wave of school districts repealing transgender student policy

Cecil S Collins Elementary School in Barnegat Township on April 23, 2013.
Cecil S Collins Elementary School in Barnegat Township on April 23, 2013.

BARNEGAT — The Barnegat Board of Education eliminated a policy on transgender and gender nonconforming students this month, following a growing movement among school boards across New Jersey that are scrutinizing their policies on LGBTQ+ youth.

At issue is what is known as Policy 5756, which guides school staff on interacting with transgender youth and advises them to accept and support a student's assertion of their gender identity.

Critics are attacking a particular part of the policy that instructs school staff not to notify parents or guardians when a student changes gender identity, unless the student consents to disclosure.

Proponents of the policy say it helps to protect transgender and nonbinary youth, who might be put in harm's way when disclosure happens in an unsupportive family.

Among LGBTQ+ youth, 28% of those surveyed reported homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives, according to The Trevor Project, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ young people. Transgender and nonbinary youth reported even higher percentages, between 35% and 39%, of homelessness in the survey.

But parents' rights organizations have targeted Policy 5756, saying it keeps parents uninvolved in their children's health and wellbeing.

"Parents have the constitutional right to their child's medical and school records, so right there, there's no reason for the school to keep them in the dark," said Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy for the New Jersey Family Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group.

"Their child's social and emotional and mental wellbeing is something parents should be involved in and should be notified of, and schools should be in partnership with parents when it comes to children and students in the community."

During a school board meeting earlier this month, Barnegat school board Vice President Doreen Continanza said Policy 5756 would be abolished because it was "poorly written."

"The Barnegat school district will still be following all state laws," she said.

Barnegat is one of at least 17 school districts in New Jersey to abolish or rescind the policy since 2023. Numerous other school districts have taken similar steps, including Colts Neck, Freehold, Holmdel, Howell, Lacey, Millstone, Franklin Lakes, Lafayette, Old Bridge, Ramapo Indian Hills, Roxbury, Sparta, Sussex-Wantage Regional, Union Township in Hunterdon County, Vineland and Washington Township in Morris County, according to the American Civil Liberties Union - New Jersey.

School districts in Middletown, Marlboro, Manalapan-Englishtown and Hanover Township in Morris County attempted to go a step further and modify their policies to require parental notification when a student changed gender identity. However, they were sued by the New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin last year, who said the policies violated New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination.

Abolishing the policy sends a message to transgender students that they are unwelcome in schools, they will not be protected and that they do not matter, said Michael Gottesman, founder of the New Jersey Public Education Coalition, an advocacy group for inclusive and diverse public schools.

"There's absolutely no reason to abolish the policy," he said. "The big lie is that the policy says that you cannot notify parents, and what the policy actually says is you're not required to notify parents, because it's designed to set up a mechanism whereby these situations can be handled with the ultimate goal of uniting the parents and the student."

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That leeway exists in the policy because student safety needs to be considered; notifying a parent could put a child in danger, Gottesman said.

"The student, for some reason, felt uncomfortable or unsafe going to their parents initially," he said. "They (transgender and nonbinary students) are really just asking for help by bringing a member of staff from the school district to discuss it with. So by abolishing this (policy), you're taking away that mechanism for these students. It puts them more at risk."

Abolishing Policy 5756 also leaves teachers without clear guidance in such situations and could open schools to future lawsuits, Gottesman said.

Because Policy 5756 is guidance, schools do not need to worry about being sued for abolishing the policy, said Hyland, of the New Jersey Family Policy Center.

"The keyword is guidance, not mandated law, and that causes lots of confusion," he said. "Hopefully more districts will understand that, understand the legal dynamics of that, and begin to repeal the policy."

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers education and the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than 15 years. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, or 732-557-5701.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Barnegat joins NJ school boards in repealing transgender policy