Public schools and libraries grapple with LGBTQ inclusion

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books that were proposed to be banned in Glen Ridge Public Libray
Some of the books that were proposed to be banned in Glen Ridge Public Libray by anti-LGBTQ residents

LGBTQ-themed items removed from middle schools

In New Jersey, the topic of childhood education is continually polarizing. With both the fight for “parents’ rights” and the inclusion of diversity, board of education meetings are continually becoming a heated space of debate.

The arguments stem back to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, when New Jersey adopted a revised version of the Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE). These new guidelines act as a blueprint for public schools and contain learning goals educators must meet through their teachings from grade to grade.

Over the last couple of years, the tension surrounding these guidelines were due to classroom teachings about sex education and LGBTQ subjects. However, in the last couple of months, the same outrage over LGBTQ education has been geared away from the actual curriculum teachings, and are now geared more toward the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ ideas in school settings as a whole.

Within the first week of January, at a board meeting, the Washington Township School District decided that Long Valley Middle School (LVMS) must remove its LGBTQ safe space stickers. These stickers, which depict a triangular-shaped rainbow with the text “Safe Space” printed in the middle, have been hanging in office and classroom windows at LVMS since 2019.

The decision for the removal came after community members and parents voiced their concerns of bias at a December 2022 board meeting. And after seeking legal advice, Superintendent Peter Turnamian said keeping the stickers could potentially expose the school to criticism for “point of view favoritism” of LGBTQ students.

“Ultimately, the advice of legal counsel was to have them come down,” Turnamian said.

To combat the notion of favoritism, Turnamian announced during the January meeting that LVMS will be implementing a new initiative called “Portrait of a Panther.” The new project will replace the LGBTQ safe space stickers with a “more common symbol” — the school’s panther mascot.

“It was deemed the best way forward to launch this new initiative, which we are excited about,” Turnamian said.

The removal and replacement of the stickers received backlash from some students and other members of the community almost immediately. About one month after the announcement, locals stepped up at the Feb. 7 board meeting to voice their disapproval of the decision. The meeting lasted over three hours.

“By simply taking down those safe place stickers you sent a message to the whole student body,” resident Jennifer Nord said at the meeting. “That message says, ‘We don’t care how you feel.’”

In attendance at the meeting was LVMS alum and current junior at West Morris Central High School, Elise Henneberry. She told the board about the time when she was a LVMS student and how she was encouraged to develop the safe space stickers as a way of combating hatred she experienced as a member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance — the Free 2 Be Club.

“The triangles were a symbol of support, the same way that we display various colored ribbons to support those fighting cancer,” Henneberry said. “Do those ribbons actually cure cancer? Of course not. But they let people know that we care and we are rooting for them. The triangles let LGBTQ students know that staff at LVMS supported them and would protect them if needed.”

In addition to the other current and former Free 2 Be club members and LGBTQ community members of Washington Township standing up to speak at the meeting, was one Long Valley resident and attorney, Michael Wald. Wald told the board that removing the safe space stickers could potentially violate an administrative code enacted by the New Jersey Legislature.

“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.”

Glen Ridge United against book ban sign
Glen Ridge United against book ban sign

These safe space stickers aren’t the only LGBTQ-themed item some New Jerseyans are fighting to remove from educational settings. In both Glen Ridge and Sparta, controversial books with diverse themes have been up for removal debates.

In Glen Ridge, an organization called Citizens Defending Education (CDE) has been concerned with certain book themes since October of last year. On Oct. 24, the group submitted a “Request for Reconsideration” regarding six books to the library’s director, Tina Marie Doody.

The list included the books Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life by Rowan Ellis and Jacky Sheridan, This Book is Gay by James Dawson, All Boys Aren’t Blue by Jersey native George M. Johnson and three others. If the reconsideration was approved, these books would have been removed from the school.

However, Director Doody denied the “Request for Reconsideration.” Following this denial, the CDE submitted an appeal. The group was then told that their appeal would be discussed during the library’s Feb. 8 board of trustees meeting.

This controversy incited a large number of Glen Ridge residents to banned together in support of keeping these books. That is how the group Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans (Glen Ridge United, for short) was formed.

Glen Ridge United, in a matter of months, collected more than 2,900 signatures on a petition from Glen Ridge residents who supported keeping the six books at the library. Many of these people attended the Feb. 8 meeting and spoke out against the ban.

“Banning books, especially these books, endangers our children,” said Phil Johnson, an organizer for Glen Ridge United.

Of the 40 people who spoke on the issue, only one individual supported the CDE that night. After all public comments, each book was discussed individually. And in a unanimous vote, the Board decided all six books would stay.

Unlike the Glen Ridge decision, in Sparta, a controversial book was ultimately removed from a middle school in a 5-2 Sparta Board of Education vote on Feb. 23. The 2017 book, The Upside of Unrequited was moved to the high school, a decision that was counter to the opinion of the district’s review committee, which recommended the book be designated a book for eighth- graders.

Initially, the board voted on whether or not to accept the review committee’s recommendation. The vote failed, with only board members Wendy Selander and Vanessa Serrano voting yes. The second motion, which moved the book to the high school, passed with votes from President Kurt Morris, Vice President Leigh McMichael, Walter Knapp, LeeAnne Pitzer, and Christina Keiling.

While some New Jersey parents and politicians across the state still continue to banter over the revised student learning standards, it is clear that the issue of LGBTQ topics in schools has bled over into other areas of learning. And although the state provides parents with an “opt-out” option for their children to many classroom discussions, the LGBTQ topic, in general, remains up for debate.