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This is a statement from Stevana Sims and Brian Ford, a social worker and teacher at Montclair Public Schools. They represent a subcommittee of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) called the 8:46 Project, which refers to a 2020 performance special by Dave Chappelle about violence against African Americans, specifically George Floyd and the subsequent civil uprisings. Sims and Ford are responding to what MEA sees as the Monclair School Board’s “inadequacy to provide sound policies and procedures to ensure the safety of all students, especially those of the LGBTQIA community.”
The MEA 8:46 is a subcommittee of the Montclair Education Association that empowers teachers, students and staff to engage in anti-racist pedagogy and practices within their classrooms and communities at large. One of their goals is to recognize and represent those who are marginalized through social justice advocacy. The 8:46 Project has hosted such events as community conversations, literary circles, Black Lives Matter at School curriculum fairs and more. The committee was formed, in response to the murder of George Floyd, by then-President Petal Robertson. It is chaired by Brian Ford and Stevana Sims, members of the MEA and educators in the Montclair school district.
On April 27, during a Board of Education meeting, two parents within public comments shared their concerns about the Inclusive Health Curriculum and the Gay-Straight Alliance spaces that are within our schools across the district. Although we are grateful for the responses from board members Allison Silverstein and Kathryn Weller-Demming, we are disappointed in the lack of immediate response from all board members. Their inability to respond demonstrated their inadequacy to provide sound policies and procedures to ensure the safety of all students, especially those of the LGBTQIA community.
The Montclair Education Association 8:46 Project stands in solidarity with all LGBTQIA students and staff within the Montclair school district and the community at large. The 8:46 Project and its members believe that the Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a national network, serve as a safe space for education and community, not of forcing beliefs. We would like to thank the GSA advisers in the schools across the district for continuing to generate safe spaces for our students.
All students are afforded the opportunity to feel safe and be seen for who they are by their teachers and peers. When a student wants their gender-affirming identity recognized and reflected, students can elect to create a “gender support plan” with the assistance of a school counselor. During this process, students can share their gender identification, their preferred name, who they would like notified and where this information can be reflected. Due to this being personal information, the student has complete autonomy as to how it is disseminated. As their school community, we have the duty to respect and protect them.
This recent incident at the board meeting is an opportunity for us, as a school community, to discuss the broader issue of how our schools are moving forward with justice and humanity when it comes to LGBTQIA issues.
The law mandating LGBTQIA history being taught in New Jersey middle and high schools went into effect in the 2020-21 school year. Teaching this history is how we avoid incidents like the one on April 27, give students mirrors and windows in our curriculum, and create an atmosphere where Florida’s “don’t say gay” law is politically impossible. The state curriculum has faced hurdles, but the mandate, unfunded though it may be, is in place. We want to know the district’s plan to be in full compliance with the law and offer our assistance in developing that plan. If a plan is in place, school staff are not aware.
While not the subject of this particular discussion, we would also like to know the district’s specific plan for implementing the Amistad mandate. Some staff have received workshops on the curriculum resources developed by the state commission, and the district sponsored TURN’s efforts to get a placard about the law in every school, but no cohesive plan has been articulated in the 20 years the mandate has been in place.
We have similar questions about the mandate on the history of people with disabilities, the Holocaust education mandate, and the diversity and inclusion mandate. If we are to live up to our professed progressive values, intentional, dedicated planning around all these mandates is necessary. Links in the curricula are not enough.
While Gov. Phil Murphy backpedaled on his equivocation about the new Family Life Education standards, which include lessons about gender identity in an effort to teach students inclusivity and, again, prevent incidents like the one on April 27 from occurring, backlash and resistance remain. We would like to know if the district has developed a comprehensive plan to implement the standards and address the potential backlash.
The MEA can be partners in moving forward with justice and humanity. Along with other allies, we can help board members and Dr. Jonathan C. Ponds, as well as school staff, learn more about LGBTQIA issues and how to create a truly inclusive school community. We look forward to discussing this matter further.
Ultimately, we must learn from this moment and work to affirm and sustain our commitment to the LGBTQIA community, including students – and we must do so beyond simply saying the board is complying with the law. They should be doing this work because it is the right thing to do because they believe in strong and inclusive schools. Using the law as a way to deflect criticism while not embracing the cause of justice and leaning into solidarity to thread the political needle is an act of cowardice. For the sake of all our students – be better, do better.