Fort Lee’s Board of Education repeals and revises trans policy

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Fort Lee Board-of Education President-Kisten Richter
Fort Lee Board-of Education Presidentt Kristen Richter. Photo by Lana Leonard.

Fort Lee schools moved by a 5-4 vote to abolish transgender policy 5756 on March 4 in a first vote to replace it. Five board members voted for a special meeting held March 13 to call a second vote for the final blow to 5756, while introducing a newly revised, discriminatory policy instead.

However, on March 18, a motion to undo the first vote to repeal went to a 6-2 vote with one abstention. Another vote to remove a first reading vote on a replacement policy carried 7-2.

Many Fort Lee community members spoke at a March 13 special public meeting to condemn the abolishment of 5756. One of those individuals was former Fort Lee Board President David Sarnoff.

“I was a little perplexed when the notice of the special meeting was brought to my attention,” said Sarnoff. “First of all, why was there a special meeting, with a regular meeting scheduled so close on the calendar?”

The district uses taxpayers’ money to fund the special meeting.

“The motion to rescind policy 5756 is being rushed,” said sitting board member Amy Ko-Tang in the mid-March meeting. “This very meeting we’re sitting in right now — requested by five members of the board — has an anticipated cost of $700 per hour for the first hour and incremental costs of $270 thereafter per hour. Our next meeting was supposed to be in three working days.”

Much of these funds are for IP and AV support, security, and paid leadership. “Resources are not infinite,” said Ko-Tang. “Don’t repeal, and don’t revise,” the board member said March 18.

For Sarnoff, the resources Ko-Tang speaks of extends to the quality of their purpose.

“We need to engage in dialogue and thoughtful debate, and not demonize each other to arrive at [appropriate] policies for this district,” Sarnoff said.

Ko-Tang also spoke to the years of research and expert guidance that led to transgender policy 5756. “[3319] was not drafted with a panel of experts as 5756 was,” Ko-Tang said.

Additionally, some members of the public spoke to the rise in anti-LGBTQ extremism at school boards around the state. The Garden State has nearly 600 school districts, and anti-LGBTQ extremism is spreading rapidly among them.

For example, New Jersey has been a target state for the anti-LGBTQ hate group Moms for Liberty. Together, the group has nine chapters in New Jersey counties including Monmouth, Ocean, Morris, Passaic, Bergen, Hudson, Union, Camden, and Cape May. Fort Lee, a district in Bergen County, is not exempt. Moms for Liberty chapters border New York City and Philadelphia and other LGBTQ-protective cities like Las Vegas.

While this scares students, they continue to show up and speak up.

“Many people didn’t come to the meeting because they did not feel safe, because there are still people out there who pose a threat to trans students,” one Fort Lee student said. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable.”

Nevertheless, the student came to the podium to speak regardless of their comfort.

“There are things that I don’t tell my parents as a teenager, does that mean I don’t trust my parents? No, I do trust my parents,” the student continued.

Another student said that they are “queer.” The student said they’ll go home feeling “in danger” now that they shared that part of themselves publicly.

“I came to that conclusion after several long years of dysphoria, confusion, and soul searching. This LGBTQ+ identity that many come to terms with is not a matter of mental illness, it’s a matter of how an individual feels about themselves. No one has any say in your identity, and you don’t have a say on how I feel, that’s on me,” the Fort Lee student said. “But what you do have to say is how you can protect me. On how you can help me and the other LGBTQ students affordably by keeping policy 5756 intact and letting it stand.”

The five board members Ko-Tang referred to wrote a new policy intended to take the place of 5756 with “compromises” to 5756’s language. Particularly, the best practice that “a school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required.”
The changed policy, identified as policy 3319, wouldn’t accept a student’s asserted gender identity at the elementary school level. Therefore, the revision would require outing a student to a parent.

“We wanted to come up with an idea that everyone could get behind,” said board member Kacy Knight, who voted to have the special meeting. “We brought it down to a single issue. The single issue is whether or not elementary school children should have completely separate records at ages 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Everything else [in the new 3319 policy] stays the same [as policy 5756].”

However, board president Kristen Richter disagreed with the new policy in general and it being something “everyone could get behind.”
A policy committee meeting was held so a new committee member could ask the district attorney questions, Richter clarified in mid-March.
“Not once, in any conversation ever, was it mentioned that people had ideas to amend any policy or create a new one that would work for everyone,” Richter said.

Richter also pointed out that a policy created to protect older students and not younger students experiencing the same age-appropriate gender exploration goes against best practices and New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The NJLAD “protects everyone of all ages,” said Richter.

“I am a nervous speaker, but I thought that it was really important for me to be here tonight, supporting my students,” said Diana Ladd, the Fort Lee Prism Club advisor and psychology teacher. “I am so very proud of all of you for speaking up, and speaking about what is right — human rights. All of you students have given me hope for the future. I wanted you to all know you are fantastic, and I appreciate you.”
The club adviser said she is also a teacher. Her responsibility is “to protect and care for each of my students as if they were my own, and that’s what I will do.”

Editor’s Note: Most quotes are from Fort Lee’s March 13 special meeting. Students’ names are left out of the article to protect their privacy.

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.