Temperatures were hot inside and outside as Hopewell Valley Regional School District’s (HVRSD’s) Board of Education conducted its second reading of policy 5756, “Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students.” Five community members came to voice their support and one against its adoption.
During public comment, district parent and former board member, Werner Graf asked the board to send the policy back to committee for broader discussion, concerned that the district would become an “arbiter of sexual identity.” This, he said, “would open the district to liability.”
In reference to locker rooms and bathrooms Graf said, “You’re opening up a safe space. The girls in our school system have the right to be comfortable undressing in front of people and they have the right not to be exposed to people of the opposite sex regardless of how they identify. If you have a janitor that identifies with being a woman, who are you to say he shouldn’t be able to do his job and maintain that locker room while the girls are in there?”
Lee Rosenfield, a district parent, spoke directly to Graf rather than the board as is customary, saying Graf’s comments were “Nothing more than fear and hate mongering.” Addressing the board, Rosenfield asked for them to “reject hate, reject fear, and vote yes.”
Parent, Sheila Reynertson, said, “I want a school district that teaches kids how to be allies. This is where it starts so, when they become adults and hear that a transgender person is being harassed, they will know that’s not OK. I’m so proud that Hopewell is bringing this policy under consideration.”
According to Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith, the policy formalizes what is already in practice at the schools. “We believe, and the district’s attorney believes, that we are legally covered. The policy states that gender identity rests with the student.”
With regards to the district jeopardizing its safe spaces, Dr. Smith said, “We’ve never heard anything about related dangers. Janitors are only in there in the event of an emergency. All adults must be in there for a reason.”
In an an effort to further ease concerns, Lisa Wolff, Board President, said that the policy empowers all students (gender conforming and nonconforming) with the ability to use the nurse’s bathroom or request screening in locker rooms “if for any reason you are uncomfortable, regardless of what that reason is.”
Typically, policies are crafted by the board’s Policy Committee and then presented to the full board for review and approval. Due to the import of the policy, all members were present for input over the course of a board retreat.
Prior to the vote, board member Michael Markulec spoke to the issue that some students may feel uncomfortable around their transgender peers. “All kids are at risk at some level. It seems to me that transgender students are at higher risk and for a few students who may be uncomfortable, that to me is minor compared to the potential risk that transgender students can and do face on a daily basis. I think we’ve struck a proper balance.”
Gordon Lewis, Jenny Long, Michael Murkulec, Alyce Murray, Adam Sawicki, Bruce Gunther, and Lisa Wolff voted for approval of the policy while Roy Dollard abstained. Explaining his vote, Dollard said that he was upset with the nation’s need to “rationalize everything” and didn’t understand why the policy was before the board at all. He said, “People can make their own judgements. I certainly feel that we ought to give those that are disenfranchised a chance to do what they want to do, but I don’t want to give them the chance to bring their difficulties on everyone else. I find it most inappropriate to include this in our discussion. We have better things to do than this in the educational arena.”
Prior to the board’s approval vote, Dr. Smith said that “(The policy) is part of the district’s overall work toward building cultural competency of understanding differences. We want to move towards acceptance and away from intolerance. I think it begins with a better character education program across all grades.”