Human rights ‘under attack’ ‣ Ocean City Sentinel

Pledged surveillance at We Belong rally in response to school board election

OCEAN CITY — “I feel like human rights in Ocean City are under attack,” LGBTQ+ advocate Jakob Pender said Nov. 16 during a rally at Veterans Memorial Park. “He is missing and it saddens me.”

Pender, a 2022 graduate of Ocean City High School and an outspoken supporter of tolerance and inclusion, was one of the speakers at the event hosted by the group We Belong.

Dozens of people gathered around the park gazebo a block from the high school, where a board meeting was scheduled for later in the evening.

Christine Stanford, one of the group’s founding members, said she fears recent progress on the issue will be reversed after new members of the Ocean City Board of Education take office in January.

“I feel like the current school board has made some progress, but as a result of the election, many of those board members will be leaving us and we want to make sure that those gains don’t go back,” he said.

Stanford told the crowd to stay tuned and to speak up when they felt something was off.

“We have incoming board members, some of whom are denouncing equity, diversity and inclusion and claiming that learning about LGBTQ issues is propaganda, and we have serious concerns,” he said. “We will be there every step of the way to ensure that all children receive an education free from harassment and discrimination.”

Stanford told those gathered to know their rights and report any bullying to friends, parents, teachers and other trusted adults.

“As a parent and ally, there are many people here who want you to know that we see you, we hear you, we support you, and you matter, you are valuable, you are special, you are loved, you matter, and you belong,” he said.

Jenna Smith, a resident of Upper Township and a teacher at Galloway Township Middle School, identified herself as “an activist for anyone who is marginalized.”

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He said that Peter Townsend of The Who wrote “The Kids Are Alright” in 1965 and that the phrase has become a reminder that “no matter how many mistakes parents make, children are alright.”

“Gen Z, they amaze me,” he said. “Watching you dismantle outdated traditions and oppressive systems using nothing more than an iPhone and Tik Tok makes this teacher and mother prouder than you could imagine.”

Smith said they were meeting “because we are scared and anxious about what the new school board means for our families, for our friends, for us.

“We are tired of the arguments, the ignorance and the constant need to remind people that humanity does not depend on who they love or their pronouns,” he said. “We cannot believe that in the year 2022 we are still having the same tired conversations with uninformed people. But stay the course, this will be over soon. Gen Z is here and you know what, they’re fine.”

Pender said he didn’t experience the amount of “homophobia and general hate that I’ve been seeing in the past year and I feel like I need to do something about it.”

He told those gathered that they are not alone in their struggles.

“We are here for you, all of these people: teachers, school board members, elected school board members, parents and members of the community at large, as well as your peers and alumni, we are all here. for you,” he said.

We Belong was formed in response to comments from newly elected school board members Catherine Panico, Liz Nicoletti, and Robin Shaffer, who vehemently opposed the new comprehensive health and physical education state standard approved by the school board in late of August.

A flyer handed out during a rally the trio held on September 8 at Mark Soifer Park stated that the policy of the state Department of Education is to “sexualize, indoctrinate and groom your children. Why? Sexualizing your children is profitable: there is a lot of money in abortions, sale of fetal tissues, sex trafficking and health services.

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Each of the candidates spoke to the more than 100 people gathered at the rally, citing their concerns about state standards. His guest speaker, the Rev. Gregory Quinlan of The Center for Garden State Families, quoted the Bible in a fiery speech condemning homosexuality and transgender rights.

Quinlan said that Jesus “defined marriage, defined family, defined sex. Do you see LGBTQIA-XYZ anywhere in that definition? The crowd shouted an emphatic “no”.

We Belong held an opposition rally on September 18, when about 100 people of all ages gathered on the boardwalk to show their support for Ocean City High School students, saying they had been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and they marched around the school in a show. of solidarity

Pender has criticized the lack of an official statement saying that the LGBTQ+ community is welcome from the Board of Education or the administration, saying a statement issued by board president Patrick Kane and Superintendent Matthew Friedman in response to the demonstration on September 8 was inadequate.

He said a generic statement that they want to make sure everyone feels welcome doesn’t address the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. “Simply saying everyone is welcome ignores the fact that LGBTQ+ people specifically need extra help,” she said.

Multiple members of the board of education attended last week’s rally, including several who lost re-election, some who will continue to serve and at least one who has yet to sit.

Ryan Leonard, who lost his bid for the remaining year in an unexpired term to Shaffer, said he has been aware of the lack of tolerance for decades.

“I think sometimes we as a people do a poor job of supporting acceptance and this is a big problem here,” he said. “The fact that it was a problem 20 years ago when my wife and I went here and it’s still a big problem says a lot.”

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Leonard said that Ocean City is not a place for extremism.

“I think we had a very active group that last year yelled about CRT (Critical Race Theory) and masks and this year they decided to pick this as their talking point for the year, and that is depressing and cannot continue,” Leonard said. .

Board member-elect Kevin Barnes, a local attorney with deep roots in the arena, said he was interested in hearing the group’s message.

“I am here with an open mind,” he said. “Part of why I’m here is to see what the issues are in more detail.”

Barnes said he supports inclusion.

“I don’t like to see any kind of discrimination,” he said.

Other school board members in attendance included Kane, Chris Halliday, Disston Vanderslice, and Greg Whelan. Whelan and Kane also lost their bids for re-election.

Thirty-something mothers Stephanie Judge and Allison Ocanto attended the rally without their young children.

“We want to make sure that our children grow up in a community that is accepting of everyone and that that is the norm, not the exception,” Ocanto said.

OCHS senior Amanda Goudie, 17, said “it was important for me to come forward to show my support.”

She feels that anti-gay rhetoric has intensified over the past year, saying it has become “more aggressive.”

“I think it’s great that there are people out there who are willing to stand up for themselves and the support has been incredible,” Goudie said.

Friend Ferguson Kurilko, who also identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said showing unity is vital.

“Something that is really important as part of that community is that people feel supported and it was important to be here to show support to people I don’t even know,” he said.

By CRAIG D SCHENCK/Sentry personnel