HACKENSACK — The Board of Education voted yes on the first of two readings of a policy to protect the rights of transgender students at city schools.
The policy under consideration includes protections for students who have not told their parents about their preferred gender identity. The protections were added after representatives from Garden State Equality, a civil rights organization, offered their input late last month.
“We do not want schools putting in a policy where they inadvertently out the student to unsupportive parents and possibly put them in danger,” said Aaron Potenza, director of programs at Garden State Equality.
The draft policy is a comprehensive plan that includes rules for bathroom use for transgender students, pronouns to use when referring to transgender students, and definitions of terms such as “gender nonconforming” and “gender expression.”
Part of the district’s policy is a Gender Support Plan and Gender Transition Plan. Each document is meant to be filled out by students and school staff as a means to account for, support and counsel transgender students as well as to plan for their transition. The forms allow students full dominion over their gender identity and gender expression.
“It really does come down to the student — how they want to transition and how they want to come out,” board member Johanna Calle said.
Calle said the policy would allow students to decide to have their records changed or not and when and if they want to go public with their transition. The plans identify specific actions to be taken by each person involved in the student’s transition.
The policy also says school staff is to work with the students to “assess the degree to which, if any, parents/guardians” will be involved in the process.
Experts have said privacy protections for transgender students are important, given high suicide and homelessness rates among transgender children whose families do not support them. Calle said that 41 percent of transgender community members attempt suicide.
Before the vote, Hackensack resident Peter Oneglia voiced concerns regarding the policy.
“This is not a good thing,” Oneglia said. “So basically a student, who’s a guy, can say, ‘I’m Mary today. And I want to use the girls’ locker room.’ ”
Board President Jason Nunnermacker cited the six-page support and transition plans that need to be filled out by students as a safeguard against any such situations.
“If the student chooses to give that sensitive and private material required by our policy, then under the state law, and I believe federal law, we have to allow them to do that,” Nunnermacker said.
Oneglia suggested that the board contact the Liberty Counsel for another opinion regarding the policy. The Liberty Counsel is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “legal organization advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.”
According to a Record investigation, 47 North Jersey school districts have similar policies in place. The city school district is one of more than 15 in North Jersey that do not have a policy that lays out transgender students’ rights.
If the policy is approved, Hackensack would be the 11th that does not automatically contact parents about a student’s gender identity at school. Most of those districts say they will not contact a student’s parent without consent.
This is the second time the school board is considering adopting a policy protecting transgender students’ rights. School board members considered the matter late last month, but they postponed the vote after meeting with Garden State Equality representatives behind closed doors.
Nunnermacker explained that the board had been informed of Garden State Equality’s model policy, which included provisions to speak with transgender students before parental notification. This is often a concern for transgender students, who fear abandonment or rejection by family.
As districts have adopted similar policies, one of the greatest divides between them is whether or how to notify parents.
Pascack Valley was one of the 10 districts that had provided privacy for transgender students even from parents. The school board amended its policy earlier this month to include parents, however. Now, Pascack Valley’s transgender policy states that a student would have access to his or her desired restrooms and locker rooms generally after a consultation with the child’s parent.
With approval upon the first reading, the policy can be adopted only after a public hearing and second vote by the board. Calle said that if the policy were to be adopted, she would coordinate with Garden State Equality to have Potenza return and speak at a community forum for the district.