Neutral policies that bar public school officials from displaying all political flags or posters can still be racist and homophobic, prompting discrimination lawsuits, New Jersey warned districts in a new guidance.
Liberal attorney general Matt Platkin on Friday joined the state's acting education commissioner to issue a "joint statement" aimed at offering "guidance to students, parents, school boards, educators, and the public" on New Jersey's anti-discrimination law. Platkin's guidance warns school officials that they could face legal action if they enact policies that "expressly discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic," including by removing "posters, flags, and stickers" that "represent or reflect a specific historically excluded group." While that language seems to suggest that general bans on the display of all such materials would not be discriminatory, Platkin makes clear in his guidance that such policies can still prompt lawsuits.
"School policies and practices may also violate the LAD even when they are cloaked in the language of neutrality," the guidance says. "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 our exclusion of Black students, other students of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, or any other member of a protected class." The guidance cites one example of a New Jersey district that enacted a policy banning all flag displays on school grounds other than the American and New Jersey flags, which are required by law. In another example, a school removed LGBTQ "safe zone" signs posted outside of classrooms after its lawyers determined the signs showed favoritism toward some students. Platkin disagrees, arguing in his guidance that those policies are discriminatory.
Platkin's guidance comes as the Democrat becomes a top opponent of parental rights policies. Platkin, in the last two months alone, has sued four New Jersey school boards for passing policies that require teachers to inform parents when their child exhibits a change in his or her gender identity. Parents would receive notice from the school, for example, if their child decides to change his or her name in class or use a bathroom or locker room that does not align with their biological sex.
For Platkin, those policies pose "serious mental health risks" and threaten "physical harm to students." New Jersey's Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, echoed that view, arguing last month that parental notification policies effectively require schools to "'out' LGBTQ+ students to their parents." The number of students in New Jersey public schools who identify as "non-binary" has skyrocketed in recent years, going from just 16 students in 2019 to 675 students in 2022, a 4,000 percent increase.
The guidance aligns New Jersey with other liberal states that have rejected parental notification and politically neutral policies in schools. In New Hampshire, for example, Democrats blocked a bill that barred schools from withholding information about a student's health or behavior to parents. One liberal state lawmaker lashed out at a local parent who urged him to back the bill, telling the parent in an email to "let the teachers teach, and shut up."
U.S. students have struggled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw liberal teachers' unions push to close schools in favor of online learning. A June National Assessment of Education Progress report found that math and reading scores among U.S. 13-year-olds are at their lowest levels in decades. While Education Secretary Miguel Cardona responded to the report by arguing that the Biden administration's "historic" COVID-era school spending would bring "positive results," many school districts used a large portion of those funds on lucrative staff bonuses, the Washington Free Beacon reported.