Written by Dana DiFilippo and Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, New Jersey Monitor
A new court ruling that bars three New Jersey school districts from implementing parental notification policies that critics have labeled discriminatory is a “good first step,” according to LGBTQ advocates.
Friday’s ruling from Superior Court Judge David F. Bauman came at the request of Attorney General Matt Platkin, who filed civil rights complaints in June challenging the policies approved by the Middletown, Manalapan, and Marlboro school districts. The injunction means the policies are suspended until the court complaints are resolved.
“A preliminary injunction doesn’t mean that these kids don’t still have the same concerns. It doesn’t mean they’re not constantly hearing adults discuss this. It doesn’t mean they’re not constantly inundated with opposing viewpoints on their identity,” said Lauren Albrecht, director of advocacy and organizing at Garden State Equality. “New Jersey has some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country, so this is a good first step. But I don’t think anybody feels like: ‘OK, pack it up, we’re good!’”
The policies in question were amended in recent months to require administrators to notify parents about students who change their sexuality or gender expression by requesting a name or pronoun change, or by asking for bathroom, locker room, or sports accommodations. Supporters said parents, as a child’s caregiver and guardian, should be alerted about such things, but critics warned such “forced outings” could endanger students with unsupportive families.
Each policy gave administrators an out, with language like “provided there is no documented evidence that doing so would subject the student to physical or emotional harm or abuse.” But Bauman said such caveats were undefined enough that they weren’t clear. He agreed with the state that the policies subject transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students to treatment cis-gender students don’t face.
The school boards, Bauman wrote, “argued that their policy changes apply to cisgender students too. But the board’s arguments beg the question: Who but transgender, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary students would request public and social accommodations or express a change in gender identity or expression?”
Parental rights do not trump the right of the attorney general to enforce anti-discrimination laws, the judge added.
“The statistical possibility that even one transgender student affected by the amended policies should run away from home or attempt or commit suicide is sufficient to tip the balance of equities in the favor of the state,” Bauman wrote. “As the state’s evidence has thus far shown, there is no protected group more vulnerable, or more susceptible to physical or psychological harm, than transgender, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary youth.”
Platkin secured a court order in May to suspend a similar policy in Hanover public schools.
Attorney Bruce Padula, board counsel for Middletown, said district officials strongly disagree with the ruling.
“It is not discrimination to tell parents if their child decides to change the gender in their student records,” Padula said. “Hiding the real reason for mental health referrals hurts transgender students. The law and facts support our position. Parents should be involved in every aspect of their child’s public education. This is no different.”
Avery Heimann, a patient navigator for gender-affirming care at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey, said the policy changes and the broader brouhaha over gender identity in schools should serve as a call to action for allies to stand up against people who “weaponize identity against youth.”
“So many politicians use it as a platform without thinking about the consequences against life it actually has, especially with increasing risks of mental health, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and suicide rates amongst youth who identify within the gender-diverse spectrum,” Heimann said. “It also concerns me that people who aren’t directly linked to the educational advocacy piece of this have become so complacent now that Murphy has declared us a sanctuary state. Allyship isn’t just about marriage equality or flying a flag; it needs to include education and fighting for that right for everyone to learn.”
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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.
Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart’s grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.