By MADDY VITALE
Students, parents and educators took their message to the Ocean City Board of Education Wednesday that the LGBTQ community needs to be respected, heard and able to exist safely without fear of harassment, bigotry or hate.
“We Belong Cape May County” is a nonprofit organization, formed a couple of months ago, made up of parents, students, educators and others who want to make it clear that the LGBTQ community should be supported in the school district, the town and throughout the county for that matter.
“We’ve been here, and we will always be here,” said Ocean City high school senior Keely Calloway, who has been vocal about the need for others to support the LGBTQ community.
She, along with more than 50 others, walked into the school for the board meeting shortly after holding a vigil at Veterans Memorial Park on Wesley Avenue, where they spoke of the need for positive change.
Over recent months, “We Belong” members have spoken out in response to what they say can be a “toxic climate” in the district. They have held peaceful protests and attended Board of Education meetings.
Members attended the meeting in part to support high school senior Nate Ginet, founder of the PRISM Club for the LGBTQ community.
“We started the club to promote and provide a safe space,” Nate said prior to the meeting. “We want to show people of Ocean City we are here to support the LGBTQ community.”
The Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution establishing the PRISM Club as an official club at the high school.
The creation of the PRISM Club was part of the board agenda packet, but it was among several resolutions.
Board of Education member Jacqueline McAlister asked prior to the board approval of the club that the resolution be pulled out from the list of resolutions, so that it may be approved separately, and Nate Ginet would be recognized for his hard work, she said.
“Nate Ginet has worked tirelessly for the PRISM Club and sometimes it is deflating,” McAlister said. “I think you should pull that (resolution) out so that Nate could get the support he needs.”
The board members agreed.
With that, Keely, a member of the Student Council, who sat alongside Nate Ginet, hugged him as his other supporters clapped.
During public comment, Keely Calloway, along with Nate, and several others addressed the school board.
“I am overjoyed at the vote held tonight to officially establish PRISM as a club. We are so overjoyed,” Keely said.
Keely asked the board to help the LGBTQ community.
“I implore the board to do whatever you can in your power to denounce bigotry and hatred, especially of the LGBTQ community. I know Ocean City high school struggles with suicide already,” she said.
Parents and teachers also stood up to voice their feelings.
“We need to commend Nate Ginet for all that he has done,” We Belong member Lisa Mansfield said.
Then she turned to address Nate sitting in the audience, “Your hard work is what made this a reality,” she said.
The sex education curriculum, developed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration in 2020, offering new guidance on how schools should teach sex and gender identity, has created a division among the community.
Controversial topics such as sexual orientation, abortion, and the appropriate grade level to teach these topics ignited a storm of opposition among Ocean City parents and other members of the community.
In a 6-5 vote on Aug. 24, the Ocean City Board of Education approved the revised standards for health and sex education for Ocean City’s three schools.
Four board members who support the sex education standards were voted out and, in their place, will be newcomer Kevin Barnes and the team of Catherine Panico, Liz Nicoletti and Robin Shaffer. Panico, Nicoletti and Shaffer opposed aspects of the sexual education standards as part of their campaign as school board candidates in the Nov. 8 election.
To date more than 5,100 people have signed a petition on Change.org, under “OC Alumni,” in response to the Sept. 8 rally and those who were opposed to the revised sex education curriculum.
Upper Township resident Christine Stanford, and mother of two, is a member of We Belong.
Stanford, whose son is a 2022 Ocean City High School graduate, and whose daughter is a senior, started it all. Stanford is a teacher in Pleasantville.
“Myself, parents and students organized after the parental rights rally on Sept. 8. That was our catalyst to get together and since then we are working on future events in Ocean City,” Stanford said.
During the meeting, she asked the board about the Wellness Center at the high school.
“It is a rough time,” Stanford said. “I am told the Wellness Center is sometimes open. I think it needs our attention due to the climate that our students are going through every day.”
Marie and Dave Hayes, of Ocean City, attended the meeting. Marie Hayes was among some in the audience who spoke out about the importance of keeping the focus on education.
She also noted that the community spoke when it elected the four newcomers to the board.
“We all welcome and support all students. We are proud that the candidates did not back down,” Marie Hayes said, adding that it is important to uphold the values that the island was founded on.
Jakob Pender, a 2022 Ocean City High School graduate, has been instrumental in the We Belong organization, acting as a group leader for the students.
“I am so happy with the turnout of students, parents and teachers. I was just so happy to plan this event and to have this type of turnout,” Jakob said.
He told the board prior to their approval of the PRISM Club that when he was a senior, he tried to get a club going to support the LGBTQ community.
“If anyone thinks we already have a club and we don’t need the PRISM Club, that is a complete myth,” Jakob said. “Please go with your hearts and support this club.”
For more information about Ocean City schools visit oceancityschools.org.