WEST ORANGE, NJ — Several residents spoke out against West Orange Board of Education Vice President Irv Schwarzbaum during the board’s May 8 meeting after he voted against a policy that, in part, allows transgender students to use whichever bathroom or locker room corresponds to their gender identity.
The policy in question, which was passed with a 4-1 vote at the April 19 BOE meeting, was meant to ensure West Orange schools are a safe learning environment for transgender students through means such as maintaining the confidentiality of a student’s gender status and allowing students to wear clothing in accordance with their gender identity. Schwarzbaum’s one concern was the locker room aspect, with the vice president stating at the time that he was worried the board could get sued if a student claiming to be the opposite gender did something wrong in a facility. He ended up voting against the measure although Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky had informed him the BOE’s counsel had approved it.
But while the policy was approved, residents were still upset at Schwarzbaum’s vote. And they were not afraid to let him know during the meeting’s public comment session.
“Your comments were completely unacceptable and showed a really gross level of ignorance about the subject,” Nicole Davis, a social worker who frequently works with transgender youth, told the vice president. “I found it really frightening that somebody who is in the position to make policy that affects young people’s lives can actually say the things you said and think the things you think.”
Though the majority of the BOE voted in favor of the policy, Davis encouraged each member as well as all district faculty to undergo training so they will better understand the issues surrounding the transgender population. She especially urged Schwarzbaum to do so, stressing that he needs to educate himself so he will not do anything to harm young people in the future.
Tim Carter, a West Orange Human Relations Commission member, sought to give Schwarzbaum an education of his own during his time at the microphone. Carter cited a Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network survey that found 75 percent of transgender students feel unsafe at schools as a reason the policy was necessary. Another reason, he said, was the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s statistic that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide compared to just 4.6 percent of the general population.
Carter additionally pointed out that the policy is specifically written to encompass students who “consistently” assert a gender identity. In other words, no one can claim to be a member of the opposite gender on a whim in order to enter a locker room. The parent urged Schwarzbaum to better familiarize himself with the policy and the statistics he presented, especially as the vice president continues to vote on measures.
“I don’t ask you to respond now, but I do ask you to consider in particular the most vulnerable of our students in the future when considering critical issues such as these,” Carter said.
Parents were not the only ones who spoke out during the BOE meeting. Katherine Meyerson, a West Orange High School student, informed the board that there are no known cases of a transgender person attacking a non-transgender person in a bathroom. At the same time, she said there have been numerous reported cases of transgender people being assaulted in public facilities. Therefore, Meyerson questioned why Schwarzbaum would take a stance against the policy.
“Knowing these statistics,” Meyerson said, “why does our (board) member attempt to reject a movement that would allow transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice? Are suicide rates and statistics not enough to prove that they need support in school systems? Are trans teens not suffering enough from oppression in other parts of their life that they need to be attacked in bathrooms where they literally just need to use the bathroom?”
Meyerson further added that New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, which trumps any policy the BOE could pass, mandates that transgender people must be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room corresponding to their gender identity. She thus warned Schwarzbaum that if he is so worried about being sued, he should focus on adhering to state law. Litigation over this matter would definitely hurt his chances if he runs for re-election, she said.
In response to these comments, Schwarzbaum reiterated that he was never opposed to the policy as a whole — he was only concerned about the locker room aspect. While he understands the state law, he said he was thinking of federal measures — such as President Donald Trump’s February withdrawal of protections for transgender students in public schools — he does not necessarily agree with that could have an effect on West Orange. He also pointed out that everyone is allowed to think differently.
“We are an educational institution,” Schwarzbaum said. “There is diversity of ideas.”
Many of the other board members were eager to share their own ideas on the subject. Ron Charles said it is vital that students are kept safe at all times while they are in school. Any measure that fulfills that mission and makes the district more inclusive is a positive thing, Charles said, which is why he supported the policy.
Laura Lab also said students need to feel secure in school, especially considering how tough adolescence can be. Lab said teenagers deal with enough anxiety as it is, but her heart breaks for those who are made to feel additionally upset about their gender identity. She said she supported the policy as a way of preventing that.
“I want our kids to feel comfortable when they’re here,” Lab said. “I hope that this policy allows them that comfort.”
Mark Robertson agreed that the policy was a “step in the right direction,” but he also wants to see more done to create a more understanding and respectful community. Like Davis, Robertson said diversity and cross-cultural training could go a long way in preventing gender and race discrimination issues from arising. Just because the district is diverse in composition does not mean it has a philosophy of diversity, he said.
“We have a big heart and the right environment,” Robertson said. “But we need to give teachers, parents and the board the tools. And I think training is something we’ve got to do.”