At the beginning of 2023, the Washington Township School District decided LGBTQ safe space stickers were to be removed from Long Valley Middle School (LVMS). A month later, local parents and LGBTQ youth activists are speaking out, claiming the removal is harmful and unethical.
The announcement to remove the stickers — which have been hanging in the windows of classrooms and offices in LVMS since 2019 — came at a Jan. 3 Board meeting. There, Superintendent Peter Turnamian said the stickers would be replaced with a more “common symbol,” the school’s panther mascot.
At the January meeting, it was revealed that the district consulted legal for advice on the issue after receiving some complaints from parents. The district’s legal team decided there were two concerns with the stickers — the voluntary nature of how the stickers were implemented, and that the stickers could potentially expose the district to criticism for “point of view favoritism.”
“Ultimately, the advice of legal counsel was to have them come down,” Superintendent Peter Turnamian said at January’s meeting.
Parents and LGBTQ activists in the area are now stepping up and voicing their distaste for the removal, mainly at the latest Board meeting on Feb. 7. There, students and parents spoke to the Board during public comment, expressing the importance of keeping safe space stickers in a school, where, according to some speeches, LGBTQ children already feel othered.
“By simply taking down those safe place stickers you sent a message to the whole student body,” resident Jennifer Nord said. “That message says, ‘we don’t care how you feel.’”
At the meeting, Elise Henneberry, a Long Valley Middle School alum and current junior at West Morris Central High School, spoke about her past experience with homophobia while attending the middle school.
Henneberry was a member of the school’s Free 2 Be Club, a club advertised as a welcoming space for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, to be supported. At February’s meeting, she told the board about a time when the club’s effort to bring acceptance with a campaign called “No Name Calling Week” turned into a joke at the group’s expense.
“We finished the posters and hung them up throughout the walls of the middle school. However, the next day, most likely within the first period, the word ‘no’ on the posters was covered by the sticky notes and it would make it so the posters read ‘Name Calling Week,’” Henneberry said. “At the time, I was devastated by this.”
This incident prompted Henneberry to send a 500 word email with photographic evidence to the middle school’s president, vice president and superintendent. “In the email, I discussed the culture of LVMS and the blatant homophobia that was generally normalized and disregarded, even by the club that was meant to be combating this,” she said.
To combat the hate, a faculty member suggested Henneberry develop an initiative to create triangle LGBTQ safe space stickers. These are the same stickers that the district is now demanding be removed.
Although the district’s legal team has legal concerns with keeping the stickers, one Long Valley resident and attorney, Michael Wald, told the Board that they may be in legal trouble if they take them away. At the recent meeting, Wald said Long Valley may actually be in violation of an administration code enacted by the New Jersey Legislature if they remove these stickers.
“This statute is binding and explicitly lays out the proper basis for decision-making of this kind. Subsection B is explicit: ‘You will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing,’” he said. “This decision appears to be in direct violation of this statute, which required it to have been made in terms of the educational welfare of children and take into consideration their individual needs.”
The Feb. 7 Board meeting went on for over three hours, the majority of which was taken up by the community pleading for the safe space stickers to stay.
“I’m very sad that a symbol of security threatens so many people that they feel that their beliefs in their households are not as strong as a symbol on a doorway,” resident John Byron Collins said at the meeting. “So, let’s get rid of the doorway.”