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Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and Acting Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan today announced that the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) and DOE have issued the joint statement below to offer guidance to students, parents, schools, school boards, educators, and the public:
To address the rising tide of bias and hate, many schools across our State have adopted anti-bias initiatives, policies, and curricula that recognize and value the identities and experiences of students from historically excluded communities. In general, these measures are consistent with the goals of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)—to prevent and eliminate discrimination. To that end, DCR and DOE encourage all New Jersey schools, school boards, and administrators to continue to develop and implement initiatives to counter bias; to continue to display inclusive markers, flags, and symbols in and around their buildings; to continue to ensure students have access to books representing a diversity of experiences and identities; and to continue to implement and comply with the state’s anti-bias curricula requirements regarding race, gender, LGBTQIA+, disability, and diversity. It is consistent with the LAD, for example, for classroom curricula to intentionally highlight Black history, for a teacher to display a LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) safe zone sticker, or for a school library to include books and other materials that reflect the experiences and identities of children and families of all races, sexual orientations, and gender identities.
Despite the LAD’s anti-discrimination principles, however, some school boards and legislators have recently introduced proposals in New Jersey and across the country to restrict classroom discussions and staff training about race, racism, gender, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation; to remove symbols or signs that express support for, or oppose bullying of, members of certain historically excluded groups; and to ban books by and about people of color and LGBTQIA+ people. At times, school board members have also opposed efforts to comply with state curricular requirements that students be taught certain topics related to race, gender, or sexual orientation, and have opposed efforts by individual teachers to instruct students on these required materials.
In New Jersey, the law is clear. The LAD prohibits schools from adopting policies or practices that discriminate against students or staff based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or other protected characteristics, whether or not motivated by discriminatory intent. The LAD also prohibits policies or practices that create a hostile environment based on any protected characteristic.
School policies or practices violate the LAD when they expressly discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic. For example, the removal of books or symbols—such as posters, flags, and stickers—merely because they represent or reflect a specific historically excluded group could itself give rise to a discrimination or hostile educational environment claim.
School policies and practices may also violate the LAD even when they are cloaked in the language of neutrality. Thus, a policy that bans all flags and symbolic speech may be discriminatory if adopted with the purpose of sending a message of opposition to or exclusion of Black students, other students of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, or any other member of a protected class. A school district may also violate the LAD if it applies a facially neutral policy in a discriminatory manner. For example, a school district may violate the LAD if it applies a policy banning flags to remove posters supporting the LGBTQIA+ community from school grounds but not to remove other types of posters.
OAG and DOE encourage students, caretakers, community members, staff, and school board members to report evidence of discrimination, bias-based harassment, or retaliation to the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) immediately. To alert DCR to a district that has or is considering a discriminatory policy, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more or to file a complaint, please go to NJCivilRights.gov or call 1.833.NJDCR4U. DCR enforces the LAD, which protects all people from discrimination in New Jersey. No one can retaliate against you for reporting LAD violations, filing a discrimination complaint, or exercising other rights under the LAD.
A complete version of the joint DCR-DOE statement is here.