#minorsextrafficking | Human rights ‘under attack’ ‣ Ocean City Sentinel

Vigilance vowed at We Belong rally in response to school board election

OCEAN CITY — “I feel that human rights in Ocean City is very much under attack,” LGBTQ+ advocate Jakob Pender said Nov. 16 during a rally at Veterans Memorial Park. “It is being lost and it saddens me.”

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

Dozens of people gathered around the park gazebo about a block from the high school, where a board meeting was scheduled 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 the new members of the Ocean City Board of Education are seated in January.

“I feel like the current school board has made some strides, but as a result of the election many of those board members will be leaving us and we want to make sure those strides do not get walked back,” she said.

Stanford told the crowd to be vigilant and to speak up when they feel something is not right.

“We have incoming board members, some of whom decry equity, diversity and inclusion and make claims that learning about LGBTQ topics are propaganda, and we have serious concerns,” she said. “We will be there every step of the way to ensure that every child receives an education free of harassment and discrimination.”

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

“As a parent and ally, there are a lot of people here who want you to know we see you, we hear you, we support you and you are important, you have value, you are special, you are loved, you matter and you belong,” she said.

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

She said 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 the parents make, the kids are all right.”

“Gen Z, you blow my mind,” she said. “Watching you dismantle antiquated traditions and oppressive systems using nothing but an iPhone and Tik Tok makes this teacher and mother prouder than you could ever know.”

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

“We are tired of the arguing, the ignorance and the constant need to remind folks that humanity is not dependent on whom they love or their pronouns,” she said. “We can’t 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 all right.”

Pender said he did not experience the amount of “homophobia and general hate that I have been seeing in this past year and I feel that 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 — the teachers, school board members, school board members-elect, parents and general community members, as well as fellow peers and alumni — we are all here for you,” he said. 

We Belong formed in response to the comments of newly elected school board members Catherine Panico, Liz Nicoletti and Robin Shaffer, who vehemently opposed the new state Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standard approved by the school board in late August.

A flier handed out during a rally the trio held Sept. 8 at Mark Soifer Park claimed the state Department of Education policy is to “sexualize, indoctrinate and groom your children. Why? Sexualizing your children is profitable — there is huge money in abortions, fetal tissue sales, sex trafficking and health services.” 

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

Quinlan said 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 a counter rally Sept. 18, when about 100 people of all ages gathered on the boardwalk to show support for Ocean City High School students, saying they have been made to feel unwelcome and unsafe, and marched around the school in a show of solidarity.

Pender has been critical of the lack of an official statement saying the LGBTQ+ community is welcome from the Board of Education or administration, saying a statement released by board president Patrick Kane and Superintendent Matthew Friedman in response to the rally Sept. 8 was inadequate.

He said a generic statement that they want to ensure everyone feels welcome does not address the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. “Just saying everyone is welcome ignores the fact that LGBTQ+ people specifically need extra help,” he said.

Multiple board of education members 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 be seated.

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

“I think that sometimes we as a town do a bad job supporting acceptance and this is a big deal here,” he said. “The fact that it was an issue 20 years ago when my wife and I went here and it still is a big deal says a lot.”

Leonard said Ocean City is no 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 decided to pick this as their talking point of the year, and that is depressing and cannot continue,” Leonard said.

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

“I’m 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 discrimination whatsoever,” he said.

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

Thirtysomething mothers Stephanie Judge and Allison Ocanto attended the rally minus their toddlers.

“We want to make sure our kids grow up in a community that’s accepting of everybody and that that’s the norm not the exception,” Ocanto said.

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

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

“I think it’s great that there are people who are willing to fight back and the support has been awesome,” Goudie said.

Friend Ferguson Kurilko, who also identifies herself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said it’s vital to show unity.

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

By CRAIG D. SCHENCK/Sentinel staff

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