New N.J. sex education standards spark belated backlash. Here’s what Murphy, Republicans say.

UPDATE: Murphy orders review of new N.J. sex education standards that sparked uproar

Sex education standards that New Jersey adopted two years ago have suddenly drawn fierce new scrutiny from some parents and Republican officials, making the Garden State the latest stage for a national cultural debate over what students should be — and actually are — learning in classrooms.

The issue exploded last week, when a local school board in Union County shared sample resources educators could use to follow the standards, which take effect in the fall and outline when New Jersey students should learn about topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and anatomy. Officials said the documents were merely a demonstration, aren’t mandated by the state, and won’t specifically be part of the district’s curriculum next year.

The situation, however, sparked new attention to the matter, with opponents saying the sample materials were too graphic and warning the state’s incoming standards will lead to children being taught sensitive subjects at too young an age, undermining the rights of parents.

Top Republicans in the state Senate on Monday sent letters to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, calling for the state to delay implementing the guidelines and hold public hearings on them — even though they were publicly available online before the state Board of Education approved them at a public meeting in June 2020.

The GOP senators argue the state adopted the standards at a time when people were in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic and they now have heard from “a rapidly growing number of parents who are extremely concerned” after learning about changes “they believe are inappropriate for their children or in conflict with their values.”

“We urge you to listen to the concerns of New Jersey parents,” the lawmakers wrote.

But others say the issue has been blown out of proportion, arguing the standards are general, inclusive, and being misrepresented by opponents.

They also note parents can opt their children out and individual school districts have discretion over how to install the guidelines. And they stress some critics are stirring the issue to push anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

“Not everybody is dealing with the facts here,” Murphy said during a television interview Monday.

The governor said some people are using the issue to “score political points” and “further divide us.”

Still, Murphy also said “parents deserve absolutely to have a say in this sort of stuff” and he is “willing to entertain” altering the standards if there are “reasonable” worries.

At the same time, state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, said in a Facebook post Tuesday that most of what he has read in articles about the controversy is not included in the guidelines.

“There is generic language on identifying gender roles and treating all kids, regardless or their gender, with respect,” Gopal said. “Anything that is more specific than that is coming from a specific Board of Education locally.”

But Gopal — who was re-elected by a close margin in November — called on Murphy’s office and the state Department of Education to “provide clarity” on the guidelines because of “the amount of misinformation out there and questions coming from parents.”

This all comes amid a growing national debate over sex education in schools as acceptance for gay and trans people has increased across America. It reached a fever pitch last month in Florida, when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis faced criticism for signing a law critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” which bans schools in the state from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in pre-school through third grade.

About a dozen other states controlled by Republicans have since proposed similar legislation or signaled they would follow suit.

There have been similar arguments over how race is taught in school, with warnings about “critical race theory” becoming a flashpoint in recent years.

The sex ed debate comes just months before the closely watched mid-term elections, as Republicans seek to gain back control of Congress. It also comes months after a contentious election in New Jersey, as Murphy won a second term by a closer-than-expected margin and Democrats kept control of the state Legislature but Republicans gained seven seats. It was an election partly colored by concerns over education, including how COVID-19 restrictions effected children.

All 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot again next year.

The sex ed standards became a campaign issue in last year’s governor’s race, with Murphy’s Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, drawing criticism for saying he was against having kindergartners learn about “gender ID and sexual orientation” and sixth-graders about “sodomy” and that he would “roll back” the state’s LGBTQ curriculum. Murphy denounced the remarks as “not consistent with our values as a state.”

At issue are health and physical education standards that outline what students in New Jersey should learn before certain grade levels. Individual school districts have control over their curriculum and specific lessons plans, though.

“It is up to a local board of education to use (the guidelines) if they want but they don’t have to,” Gopal said.

This most recent revision was part of the state’s recurring cycle for updating academic standards across various subject areas.

Republican lawmakers did not widely criticize the update at the time the New Jersey Board of Education adopted it on June 2, 2020, though hearings on the guidelines drew public protests. Some members of the board also suggested the standards go too far.

Under the state’s previous standards, set in 2014, students had to learn by second grade to “use correct terminology to identify body parts and explain how body parts work together to support wellness.”

By fourth grade, students needed to be taught to “determine the relationship of personal health practices and behaviors on an individual’s body systems” and they needed to know “respect and acceptance for individuals regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, religion, and/or culture and provide a foundation for the prevention and resolution of conflict” by sixth grade.

The updated standards say by the end of fifth grade, “all individuals should feel welcome and included regardless of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”

They also say by second grade, teachers should “discuss the range of ways people express their gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior.”

By fifth grade, they should “describe gender-role stereotypes and their potential impact on self and others,” be able to “differentiate (for students) between sexual orientation and gender identity” and “demonstrate ways to promote dignity and respect for all people.”

By eighth grade, students should be able to “differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation” and teachers should “develop a plan for the school to promote dignity and respect for people of all genders, gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations in the school community.”

Murphy, meanwhile, signed a law last year requiring all New Jersey schools to include instruction in kindergarten through eighth grade on “diversity and inclusion in an appropriate place,” including gender and sexual orientation.

The matter came to a head when the school board in Westfield last week released a sample lesson plan suggesting how students can be taught about a variety of issues, including bullying, diverse families, and gender identity.

“You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts,” one sample plan says. “You might feel like you’re a girl even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘boy’ parts. And you might not feel like you’re a boy or a girl, but you’re a little bit of both. No matter how you feel, you’re perfectly normal!”

The materials also reference how to discuss pornography, though nothing about pornography is included in the state standards.

State Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, shared the materials online, saying “I truly think New Jersey has lost its damn mind.” Schepisi said she agreed with some of the lessons but “many are completely overboard with cringy detail for young kids and some go so far as unnecessarily sexualizing children further.”

The issue further gained attention as Fox News and other conservative media outlets ran multiple stories about the material in the following days.

Westfield school officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

But district superintendent Raymond González told The Washington Post “the sample plans were part of a website that was included as a link to illustrate the type of possible resources for school districts shared by the N.J. Department of Education.“

”We have said repeatedly that these are resources only and that they are not state-mandated,” he added.

Still, Alex Wilkes, a spokeswomen for the state Republican Party, said the state standards are “extremely broad” and “seem to set more of a floor than a ceiling, meaning that parents are looking at Pandora’s box for what is to come in the fall.”

“It’s simple: Governor Murphy thinks he knows better how to parent your children than you do,” Wilkes said.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd Dist., who is running for re-election in November, responded by saying he would introduce a bill that would require American schools tell parents if their children are being taught about gender identity and sexual orientation.

State Sen. Edward Durr, R-Gloucester, said he would introduce a separate bill that would ban New Jersey schools from teaching about those issues in kindergarten through sixth grade. Durr called the new standards “absurd,” “unnecessary,” and “insulting” to parents. The measure is unlikely to gain traction in the Democratic-led Legislature.

State Sen. Joseph Pennachio, R-Morris, said the standards were part of a “woke agenda” wielded by “Murphy Democrats” in a “full-scale attack on families.”

Murphy dismissed that argument.

“This is not about a woke agenda,” the governor said Monday. “This is about doing the right thing in a responsible, right, balanced way.

Some of the harshest comments from opponents, especially on social media, echo remarks from right-wing commentators that school districts and Democrats are “pedophiles” who are “indoctrinating” or “grooming” children. Critics note those are anti-gay stereotypes suggesting people who aren’t heterosexual try to convert children.

Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s leading gay-rights group, said there have been “broad-reaching misinformation campaigns that don’t accurately reflect what is included in these lessons.”

To combat that, Fuscarino, said Garden State Equality launched a website — https://www.teach.lgbt/ — to detail the standards “so there is nothing hidden and it’s transparent for parents to see what is being taught to their children.”

Fuscarino said part of what makes New Jersey’s schools great is their diversity and curriculum, adding that LGBTQ students feel more included when lessons “reflect them” and that bullying decreases at the same time.

Murphy said Monday he doesn’t “like the fact that some are using this as an opportunity to score political points and to further divide us versus them.”

“In particular, I say that on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ communities,” the governor said during an unrelated event in Moorestown. “Let’s everybody not use this to divide us.”

Wilkes, the GOP spokeswoman, said rejecting the issue as “anti-LGBT” is in “bad faith.”

“The overwhelming sentiment from parents is concern about sexual materials being offered of any kind,” she said. “All the evidence you need is that you have Murphy and Gopal starting the backpedal because they know that there is widespread anger.”

State Sen. Jon Bramnick, R-Union, a Westfield resident and one of the more moderate Republicans in the Legislature, said “first- and second-grade students should not have a course on gender identity.” Bramnick called it “a complicated subject that would be confusing to very young children.”

Despite Westfield’s sample lesson plan, the state’s revised academic standards don’t appear to include the term “gender identity” for what students must learn before second grade.

For his part, Murphy on Monday said “I largely agree with Jon’s point.”

The governor also defended the standards as “very high-level and very general.”

Still, he said “if folks think they need to be adjusted or altered, and there’s a reasonable argument for that, count me as somebody who’s willing to entertain that.”

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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at @johnsb01.

Matt Arco may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewArco.

Adam Clark may be reached at [email protected].


https://www.nj.com/education/2022/04/nj-adopted-new-sex-education-standards-2-years-ago-theres-now-an-uproar-from-republicans.html

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