School board meetings in one New Jersey district have turned into a toxic fiasco as LGBTQ+ protesters screamed and cursed at board members over a policy to fly only the American and New Jersey flags in front of schools.

The last two scheduled school board meetings of the Westwood Regional School District in Bergen County, New Jersey, erupted into controversy because the policy excludes the outdoor display of rainbow flags and other banners of the LGBTQ+ movement, along with all other types of flags.

Protesters accused the school board of using the policy to attack the LGBTQ+ community, since it bans flying the “Pride” or “Progress Pride” flags from flagpoles outside schools, as several other government buildings in New Jersey do.

School board members responded that the policy prohibits all flags except the American and New Jersey flags, not just flags associated with the LGBTQ+ movement, which includes transgenderism

“I don’t want any special-interest flag flown over a government building,” board member Laura Cooper told the crowd April 27.

However, no board policy states that teachers may not fly flags of their choice in their classrooms, or that students may not display the Pride or Progress Pride flags on their backpacks or clothing throughout the day.

Four hours into the school board’s April 27 meeting, Andrea Gerstmayr, wife of former board member Andrew Gerstmayr, called out Cooper for “not looking” at her as Gerstmayr criticized the flag policy.

“I would like to say that nobody on the board should ever criticize nor undermine [a student’s] words when she says that she needs the Pride flag to feel safe,” Gerstmayr said, “or any LGBTQ+ child needs to know when it is flown outside of a building, Ms. Cooper—Ms. Cooper …” 

Gerstmayr began chastising Cooper for “not giving me the respect” of attention while she spoke, although it appears from a video of the meeting that Cooper was writing something down.

“You need to look at me when I am—” began Gerstmayr, before she was cut off by board President Michael Pontillo, who informed her that she wasn’t allowed to directly address board members and asked that she take her seat.

Gerstmayr refused, waving her arms as she exclaimed, “She should look at me. I can talk.”

Pontillo responded to Gerstmayr’s husband, who also was complaining from his seat: “You’re not supposed to address board members directly; Andrew, you would know that—you were a board member. It’s actually in the rules, so you [nodding to Andrea Gerstmayr] can have a seat. Thank you.”

Gerstmayr persisted, shouting: “No, I am standing here and I am going to say what I’m going to say.” 

Pontillo then asked a police officer to escort Gerstmayr from the lectern. As many in the crowd yelled or booed, Pontillo said, “We have rules, folks.”

When the crowd began to become unruly, shouting obscenities at the board, Pontillo requested that Gerstmayr finish her statement without distractions. 

But Gerstmayr continued to complain, saying that Cooper appeared to be on her phone. Several other board members, looking exasperated, informed Gerstmayr that Cooper clearly was taking notes.

Gerstmayr abandoned her criticism of Cooper’s note-taking, asking the board why U.S. embassies fly the [Pride] flag, if the American flag is a symbol of pride and unity:

Why do U.S. embassies fly the [Pride] flag? To show our citizens around the world that they are a safe haven, for anyone to come and come to the embassy to know that they are safe. And that is what our LGBTQ children need to know, that when they see this flag outside flown on—doesn’t have to be the same mast as the one as the United States flag, but to know that they are safe. They need the symbol. 

The May 11 school board meeting descended into more chaos, as the board adopted the flag policy and several speakers used the public comment segment to air grievances.

May 11, 2023, Westwood Regional School District Board Meeting

Sharon McDonough, an administrative assistant for the Westwood Regional School District, wore a Progress Pride flag in her hair as she began her remarks by telling the students present that the district’s classrooms were safe spaces for them. 

McDonough then turned around and accused board member Douglas Cusato of telling others to “go f— themselves” when she asked him to wear a mask in 2020.

Many protesters at the May 11 meeting also accused the school board of “dehumanizing an entire community of people,” as one speaker put it, because it appointed a committee to examine the district’s sex education policy and to determine whether teachers may promote LGBTQ+ topics in elementary classrooms.

One student told the school board this was “gross overreach.” She said the board needed to “listen to experts” and review “peer-reviewed studies” in order to determine policy. 

“It feels like you are using your own beliefs and agendas to push a prejudicial and discriminatory viewpoint on this district,” the student said.

Another speaker, who identified himself as a teacher, suggested a scenario at a local carnival in which a student asks him whether “someone can have two moms.” 

“What would you say?” the teacher asked the board. He then began repeating the word “empathy” into the microphone as a small crowd behind him waved Pride and Progress flags. 

However, no proposed or adopted policy in Westwood Regional School District prohibits teachers from mentioning spouses or parents who are in either straight or gay relationships.

This report was modified May 22 to correct a transcription error to reflect that Pontillo spoke both to Andrea Gerstmayr and her husband, Andrew, and that she is not a former school board member although he is.

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