Highland Park to Accommodate Transgender Students

By Brenda Flanagan

“Transgender kids deserve the right to be happy just like every other kid,” said Highland Park Board of Education President Darcie Cimarusti.

Highland Park’s school board president quoted an eighth-grader as the board planned to formally vote on its comprehensive policy to accommodate transgender students. As many schools across New Jersey struggled with the issue, Highland Park spent four months pulling together a plan that transcends who uses which bathroom, and most students welcomed it.

“I think it speaks to a much broader range of acceptance than just the bathroom. It’s supposed to ensure that in every aspect of a student’s life here at Highland Park High School — that they feel safe and accepted,” said student Amita Shukla.

“And there were a lot of students who said, like sharing the policy, saying, ‘This is my town!’ and they were taking pride in it and also some middle school students went to the board meetings and showed their support for the policy,” said student Mateo Juliani.

“What makes this policy in my eyes cutting edge is not so much the bathroom policy or even the language written in the policy, but specifically a plan we will be requiring our staff to follow,” said superintendent Scott Taylor.

Highland Park crafted its policy well before the Justice Department issued sweeping guidelines advising schools across the U.S. to “treat students consistent with their gender identity” at the risk of losing their federal funding. Board members here viewed North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” with alarm.

“The policy the Highland Park Board of Education will vote on tonight makes it clear that there is no room for such hate in Highland Park public schools,” said Cimarusti.

But LGBT advocates say that in a few towns across New Jersey, some transgender kids have felt a stinging backlash.

“There’s other school parents who are saying, ‘I don’t want that kid going to the dance wearing a dress.’ ‘I don’t want that kid going in the bathrooms with my kid.’ And it’s kind of trickling down also to the youths, right? That there’s bullying at the schools, sometimes, in these cases,” said Aaron Potenza.

New Jersey’s Department of Education hasn’t issued a specific transgender policy and some districts trying to adopt transgender plans have encountered local opposition. Toms River put a plan on hold, after a petition by Move the Earth Christian Minister Shawn Hyland argued, “…this proposed policy would potentially force girls to undress themselves in front of biological males… As parents, leaders and responsible adults, we must protect our daughters and sons from the potential shame that a violation of privacy and safety could cause.”

The national debate over LGBT rights has become such a flash point. Chaos erupted in Congress recently during a vote on anti-LGBT defense contractors. Congressman Frank Pallone says some transgender people feel threatened.

“They do feel that they’ve been subject to physical threats and harassment oftentimes. So it is an issue of civil rights that Highland Park is focusing on today and tonight, but it’s also an issue of helping people,” Pallone said.

The board meets tonight. Assuming the policy is approved, team leaders will meet over the summer and then with the full staff in the fall to begin implementing the policy in all district schools.