In Ocean City, a new school board alarms the LGBTQ community and its allies

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — The fog blew up and over the bridge leading into Ocean City as the minutes ticked down to the start of the Ocean City Board of Education meeting Jan. 4. The newly elected board members huddled in a side vestibule of the high school waiting to go in.

In the front lobby, Jakob Pender and others dressed in rainbow-themed Pride tops also waited.

It was the first meeting where the new members would be installed: three parents who campaigned against New Jersey’s new standards for teaching health and sexual education and on “conservative values,” and who were endorsed nationally by Moms for Liberty.

The group set off alarm bells after appearing Sept. 8 in a city park alongside a pastor who railed against homosexuality and mocked gay marriage, but they unseated three school board incumbents: a hand surgeon, an internal medicine doctor, and an attorney for Pfizer Inc.

Ocean City is called America’s greatest family resort. But in the fog of winter, what is really going on a block from the beach and the boardwalk’s gentle amusement rides?

Is Ocean City’s goal to uphold an image of surfers and sun-kissed beach days, an idyllic girl-meets-boy beach romcom, a stubbornly dry town founded by Methodists where discussions of gender identity, sexual orientation, pronouns, and pride are just irritants to a greater notion of how the town sees itself?

Who really gets to decide what it means to be, as the mascot is called, a Red Raider?

After the seismic school board elections, these questions are reverberating on the island, where about 11,000 people live year-round, and on Facebook. The district of 2,000 students also draws from Longport, Upper Township, and Sea Isle City.

At that Sept. 8 rally, the pastor Gregory Quinlan railed against homosexuality and said Jesus Christ “defined marriage, defined family, defined sex,” adding, “Do you see LGBTQIA-XYZ anywhere in that definition?” (to which the crowd shouted “an emphatic no,” according to reports). Now the new board members who attended the rally are in a position to make policy.

Feelings were raw on Jan. 4 as the factions met across the U-shaped tables at the school library, both the new members and the queer community asking for tolerance and acceptance.

“I have to say, `Oh my gosh, what am I doing sitting here?’” said Liz Nicoletti, one of the newly elected members. “This is not something I wanted to do in my life.”

She recalled pulling her sons out of a Christian school and placing them in Ocean City, which then shut down during the pandemic. She said she was a stay-at-home mom, “the best job,” and mused about becoming a pickleball instructor, her husband urging her to get a job. She bristled when people chuckled.

“I know, we’re on the conservative side of things,” she said. “But we care. Please don’t laugh at me. Because that’s disrespectful. We all deserve respect. All of us. Even me.”

Lauren Knopp, a student representative on the board, told the room: “Students of this district are very stressed about the scenario that’s been happening, and I’m not going to leave here without everybody knowing that.”

A tourist town

The debate echoes others in schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Bucks County, where the school boards in Pennridge and Central Bucks passed resolutions banning teachers from advocating political and “social policy” issues in school, including displaying Pride rainbow flags, or in Radnor, where a group of parents filed a police report about the controversial book Gender Queer, available in Radnor High School’s library.

Nicoletti and her running mate, Catherine Panico, won three-year terms, along with local attorney Kevin Barnes. Robin Shaffer won a one-year seat.

Nicoletti, Panico, and Shaffer want to overturn a 6-5 vote in August under the old board approving New Jersey standards for sexual education, with guidelines that include discussing gender by the end of second grade and types of intercourse by the end of middle school. Districts can set their own curricula and lesson plans; parents can also opt their children out.

But newly elected school board president Chris Halliday, an Ocean City architect and father of two children, ages 6 and 8, said he does not expect the issue to be raised again and is confident the district is implementing the state’s guidelines appropriately.

He said he also does not anticipate a vote on a teacher advocacy ban similar to the one adopted in…

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