Special Meeting on Policy 5756 Ends Before It Begins
Policy 5756, which offers guidance and protections for transgender students, was the hot topic at last night’s Board of Education meeting. There were eight separate testimonies offered in support of this policy which had come under fire after Commissioner Mark Brunciak asked for a special meeting to discuss it. That meeting was scheduled to take place on December 14th, just two weeks before the three new commissioners will be sworn in.
Lori Lalama, CEA president, spoke first and reminded the Board that Policy 5756 was voluntarily adopted in 2019 with no reported negative effects since then. The recent push to revoke it, she said, is part of a larger conservative movement that seems aimed at limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion measures in schools. The policy was designed to protect students from discrimination and is aligned with federal and state laws. “Who is served by removing this policy,” she asked, “and who is harmed?”
Lalama, with the Board’s permission, also read letters from two district teachers. One, who remained anonymous, spoke of their own adult children - one bisexual, one gay, and one transgender - and how none of their teachers knew these things before the parent did. “If you build a foundation as a parent of trust, honesty, and inclusivity in the home, your children will want to communicate this with you. So the focus here should not be on whether or not the teachers should tell the parents, but rather why your child feels that they cannot be honest with you.”
A second letter, from CHS educator and GSA advisor Kaitlyn Windt, implored the BOE not to repeal Policy 5756. The policy, she said, “can be a lifesaver for some of our students.” She shared that several students have come out to her when they felt ostracized and all but exiled from their own families. This policy offers a safe place for these students to be who they are when their own homes are not.
Passaic County Education Association President Sue Butterfield also opposed the Board’s decision to hold a special meeting to discuss the topic. She asked simply, “Why?” She talked about the Board’s duty to engage in best practices and asked, “Where’s the data that supports abolishing this policy?”
Donna Popowich, who is a member of the advocacy group SWEEP NJ, reminded the Board that removing the policy would not remove the district’s obligation to protect transgender students. “There is no reason to repeal this,” she said, “except to express hate.” She reported that Hanover, a district that did rescind Policy 5756, has spent $80,000 in litigation since removing it. She suggested that the planned special meeting be canceled.
Commissioner-elect Tanya Suarez spoke on the topic from her experience as a social worker. She talked about the young people she met who were in homeless shelters because their families had rejected them once they came out as LGBTQ+. “Let’s protect our students who live in hostile environments,” she said.
During unfinished business, Commissioner Judy Bassford made a motion to cancel the special meeting scheduled for December 14 regarding Policy 5756. Bassford offered multiple reasons for this motion including the fact that other boards in New Jersey are now facing lawsuits from the state due to their amending of the policy. She also said that no other policy in the district handbook is set to protect this class of students. Fiscal considerations were another sticking point, as Bassford listed the anticipated costs of the special meeting: about $1500 to have the attorney present plus possible additional costs for outside research, $1000 for security, and $600 for the A/V department’s presence.
Bassford also said that deciding to alter or rescind Policy 5756 during the short lame-duck period between the election and the new board taking over is inappropriate and any policy changes should be decided on once the new board is installed. She further cited a legal judgment, supporting her contention that an outgoing board should not make decisions that will “improperly usurp the authority of the successive board.”
Commissioner Anthony Santiago seconded Bassford’s motion to cancel the special meeting and President Smith opened a discussion period. Brunciak, who initially called for this meeting, said that he has never heard of a student being outed by a school district in an apparent bid to show that this policy was not necessary and in contradiction to the testimonies offered earlier in the meeting, which presented reasons why it was necessary.
Commissioner Richie Mejia pressed Bassford on her motion to cancel the special meeting and to keep the policy intact after being in support of suspending it at the last meeting. She clarified that although she still has concerns about portions of the policy, she is more concerned with protecting the class of students this deals with and with the financial burden the special meeting would bring on the district. Mejia spoke passionately about the importance of 5756, saying that people in his life have been negatively affected by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and that policies like these are in place to protect them. He implored the Board to vote to keep Policy 5756 and was in support of keeping the special meeting in place so that the Board could hear from the community and put the issue to rest.
Commissioner Anthony Santiago spoke after Mejia on how important it is to protect the subset of students that this policy is meant to protect. “Why would we not want to protect the students?” He added that it was important to hear from the students, who are the population most affected by the policy.
Commissioner Alan Paris and Lucy Danny both decided that, due to litigation between other districts with the state about the policy and the policy’s support of existing anti-discrimination laws, it would be in the best interest of the district to see what the results of those litigations are and then act if necessary. Paris said that there would likely be a decision in the spring and also supported keeping the policy in place at least until that time.
Commissioner Fahim Abedrabbo said that he sees the issue as social vs religious. He acknowledged that religious teachings are separate from the democratic responsibility to “build a safe community for all” and said that he has no problem with the policy. He criticized Bassford for her change of position but agreed with her regarding the lame-duck session, saying that some people just want to “burn down the place” when they’re on their way out of office. Abedrabbo explained that he would abstain on the vote for that reason, as an outgoing commissioner, although he thought they should still hold the meeting so that they could hear from the public and put the issue to bed.
President Smith referred to Bassford’s comments as “lame-duck crap.” He claimed that according to the State Attorney’s office, the lame duck guidance did not apply to this Board and was only applicable to boards whose elections are in April with reorganization meetings a week later. He seemed perturbed by the changed minds from the last session, where nearly every commissioner voted to hold this special meeting, and tonight, where many seemed ready to cancel it. Brunciak also expressed frustration at the apparent turn of events, as it appeared less and less likely that the policy would be revoked or even addressed.
The board attorney said that the motion made at the previous BOE meeting was simply to establish the special meeting on December 14; it was not a motion to rescind, amend, or otherwise touch the policy. The motion on the floor, he said, was on whether or not to cancel that meeting. He also reminded the Board that with or without the policy in place, the district was obligated to uphold it and its protections for transgender and non-binary students. “My opinion would be, do nothing. Wait. Why get yourselves in this controversy and rile everybody up over something that’s largely out of your hands anyway?”
The roll call on canceling the December 14 meeting:
The board attorney explained that abstentions go with the majority vote, which was to cancel. “The motion carries,” he said. With that, the special meeting for December 14 to discuss Policy 5756 was canceled.
It remains to be seen if the new board will be interested in examining this policy further but based on the incoming commissioners’ responses to questions during the election season, it seems unlikely that any of them will be in a hurry to amend or rescind this policy.