Old Bridge Board of Education repeals trans policy after voting to keep it

David Cittadino
Old Bridge Superintendent David Cittadino

Old Bridge Schools voted 5-4 to repeal Policy 5756, the state’s transgender guidance for schools. The decision to “abolish” the policy frustrated many in the community. For months the policy has been debated, and most recently was affirmed in late 2023.

Superintendent David Cittadino in the fall told Out In Jersey that “since this policy has been in place we have not had any issues, and the students that I have talked to feel that this is a safe space for our students.”

However, leadership on the Old Bridge school board recently changed, and so has the agenda.

Board member Salvatore Giordano was nominated and selected in a 5-4 vote as board president, and Matthew Sulikowski was nominated and selected in a 5-4 vote as board vice president at the board’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 5, 2024.

“Explain to the audience why it is that this policy has been brought up again and why it was slipped in this morning after the agenda had already been out,” one person commented.

The policy was put on the addendum to “move the Board of Education [to] approve the ABOLISHMENT of Policy # 5756”; usually the line item would read: “move the board to vote…”

Many speakers at the January board meeting were former students, parents of students, or teachers in the district. Some were concerned New Jersey educators.

“Parents who have feelings in support of safe schools, advocate for the continued input and implementation of Policy 5756, and all its measures that support the entire student population,” said New Jersey educator and author Adaryll Moore.

“We believe parents should know if the child is LGBTQ+; that’s why it is important for parents to create safe and affirming environments at home so their child feels comfortable coming out to them. Nothing in the existing Policy 5756 prohibits school personnel from disclosing a student’s transgender nonbinary identity from a parent if the student permits it.”

Moore is a transgender educator in New Jersey, and she is an award-winning writer.

One board of education member told the pastor that there is such a thing as “separation of church and state.” His use of hate speech eventually led to police escorting him out of the meeting.

However, just before the board meeting, locals found out that an outside speaker was coming to sway the board.

The man is a self-proclaimed pastor who works for Turning Point USA, an organization with “a mission to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom.” Charlie Kirk, known anti-LGBTQ white supremacist and grifter of Trump supporters, founded the foundation. The DeVos family, known as key figures in the Heritage Foundation, are also supporters of Turning Point USA.

The organization’s hired speaker (ie. speaks at BOE meetings for $10-15K) is said to use religion and racism to defend transphobia. And he used racial and transphobic slurs to make his point. Old Bridge Schools are on the organization’s “School Board Watchlist.”

One board of education member told the speaker that there is such a thing as “separation of church and state.” His use of hate speech eventually led to police escorting him out of the meeting.

Another public speaker said that “this is a podium, not a pulpit.”

“I am here to implore you to uphold Policy 5756. Our town is being inundated by outside forces trying to influence the way we live, think and interact with each other. It is embarrassing to think that these outside forces could actually interfere with our way of life in Old Bridge; that you might actually allow them to manipulate you and sway your vote. Our community and our children — all of our children — deserve better than this incessant rage-forming we seem to be inundated with lately,” Old Bridge resident Elena Zaccario said.

“Again, [this policy] harms literally no one,” Zaccario continued.

According to the data collected from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General’s New Jersey Anti-Bullying Task Force bullying is on the rise. Bias-based incidents in schools have quadrupled since 2018. Since 2015, such incident reports have increased by as much as 400%.
While the statistic doesn’t specify LGBTQ-biased bullying, there is a correlation between anti-LGBTQ legislation and harm.

A 2023 Trevor Project survey found consequences of bullying from the impact of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Transgender respondents (45%) experienced online harassment, 24% of respondents were being bullied at school, and 42% of respondents stopped speaking to a family member.

Many Old Bridge community members continued their pleas to keep the transgender guidance in place, citing the bullying experienced of Nex Benedict that many believe led to the youth’s death. Benedict was a 16-year-old two-spirit, transgender, gender-nonconforming, Indigenous youth of the Choctaw tribe in Owasso, Okla. Three classmates beat Benedict unconscious in an Owasso High School bathroom. Benedict died on Feb. 8, 2024.

Jakob Pender, a Rutgers University student, said that this policy reversal by the board is on “the wrong side of history.”

“[By repealing this policy] it shows the other students here at the school that you are not on the side of Nex Benedict who was killed, who was murdered in school.”

The cause of Benedict’s death has not yet been officially determined or released by medical examiners.

Classmates had bullied Benedict for being a gender-queer student. The Benedict family said Nex’s bullying had begun after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law in May 2022 that barred transgender and gender-expansive youth from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.

In the police video released to YouTube, Benedict says they didn’t tell the adults at the school they were being bullied, insinuating that the administration wouldn’t do anything about the bullying. A coalition letter, calling for the immediate removal of Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters, was penned by national LGBTQ organizations and local Oklahoman LGBTQ organizations, most notably Freedom Oklahoma.

“We have students here tonight. We have students, you’re the student representative left. What good is this [repeal] doing for any of the students?” asked Pender.

One call to action set forth by national and local activists has been to pass the Federal Equality Act to fight the culture of anti-LGBTQ extremism. Additionally, some have argued the state legislature could pass Policy 5756 into law to protect students instead of keeping the policy as a recommendation.

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.