For more than a year, Egg Harbor Township teen Emily McGrath attended meetings encouraging her local board of education to pass a policy that would protect transgender students in the district.
Now, she might finally see that happen.
Last month, the Department of Education released guidelines for school districts instructing them to the rights of transgender students including access to bathrooms and locker rooms as well as standards for pronouns and chosen names.
“I am proud to live in a state with such thorough guidelines that, I hope, will inform policy,” said McGrath, 18, now a freshman at Rowan University.
School districts around the state received the guidance from the Department of Education on Sept. 27, about 14 months after a law mandating it was signed by former Gov. Chris Christie.
The guidelines say school districts must allow transgender students to use the facilities and to participate in sports or activities that are gender-segregated consistent with the gender with which the student identifies.
The guidelines do leave open the option to use a unisex bathroom. They also afford students who are not transgender the option to use a unisex facility if they feel uncomfortable.
The guidance includes a requirement to ensure transgender students are addressed by the name and pronoun they choose, regardless of a legal name change. In addition, a student does not need parental consent, and school districts are not obligated to notify parents of the student’s gender expression or identity.
Parent Cryssie Breitbach, whose 12-year-old daughter is transgender, said she was happy to hear about the new guidelines.
“I’m actually really pleased with some of the changes, especially the ones with the parents not having to be notified,” said Breitbach, 39, of Weymouth Township. “This is a big concern for parents and advocates for trans students that some of them come from homes where that is not accepted.”
Breitbach said Weymouth Township schools do not have a policy in place yet, but plan to adopt one soon.
She said the district offered training for staff, parents and students in the past. Although she and her daughter have had a positive experience, Breitbach said the guidelines will help protect transgender students in districts where they may not be so lucky.
“I think that we’re finally moving in the right direction, and I’m hoping that other states follow suit,” she said.
According to Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple, the guidelines were prepared after a review of policies from other states and organizations and in consultation with stakeholders. He said the 2017 law requires schools to update or adopt policies regarding transgender students.
In a recent blog post, the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), which participated in developing the guidelines, said the law was designed to replace federal guidance on transgender rights issued by former President Barack Obama and later rescinded under President Donald Trump’s administration.
A recent email survey of school policies regarding transgender students sent to all area school districts by The Press of Atlantic City garnered six responses. In Egg Harbor Township, where the local school board two years ago narrowly voted down a policy that would have added protections for transgender students, the district has received and will review the new guidance, Superintendent Kim Gruccio said.
Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Chris Kobik said his district has had a policy in place since October 2015.
“Since the guidelines just came out, we have not had the liberty to review them with the Policy Committee of our board. I can see the guidance generally provides more specific definitions and focuses on the interest of the student,” said Kobik.
Vineland Assistant Superintendent John Frangipani said his district adopted a policy regarding transgender students in 2014 and has since updated it.
“We support our transgender students and their families as needed. We have provided accommodations, name and pronoun changes. We treat it as a very personal matter between the student and the family, if the family is aware. The school guidance counselor will work with the students to ensure their comfort level and that all their needs are met,” Frangipani said.
Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings did not indicate if a policy was in place there, but said the school board is reviewing the state guidelines.
“Our experience historically has been that our students embrace their classmates regardless of demographics, socioeconomics, gender identity, religion etc.,” Kummings said.
In a statement released with the guidance, Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet said communication between the school and the students will ensure a safe and supportive environment for transgender students.
“School district personnel should have an open, yet confidential, discussion with the student to address matters ranging from privacy concerns to the student’s chosen name,” he said.