November 30, 2023

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N.J. senator to propose bill giving parents access to districts’ sex education curriculum

4 min read

A top state lawmaker said Tuesday he will introduce a bill to make sure curriculums are published on New Jersey school district websites in the summer, ensure families can ask questions about the lessons, and reinforce parents’ right to opt their children out of sex education classes.

State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who chairs the state’s Senate Education Committee, said politicians and political operatives have “purposely spread misinformation and false claims that cause concern for well-meaning parents” about such classes. He noted that parents have been able to pull their children out of the family life curriculum since 1980.

The bill is among several efforts state officials took in the past week to address the controversy over the state’s new sexual education standards set to take effect in the fall, including guidelines regarding inclusivity and respect for LGBTQ youth. Gov. Phil Murphy has said the standards are being “intentionally misrepresented by some politicians.”

The state Board of Education approved the standards in June 2020, but the issue resurfaced after a February board of education meeting in Westfield in which members discussed sample curricula the state provided on a resources page. Fox News and other conservative outlets picked up the story two weeks ago, and some parents and many Republican officials have voiced concern about the standards.

Murphy, a Democrat, announced last week he ordered the state Department of Education to review its standards and “provide further clarification on what age-appropriate guidelines look like for our students.”

In a memo dated Thursday, acting state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan addressed what she called “numerous misrepresentations of the content, meaning, and role” of the state standards. She noted that they were developed with experts and stakeholders and adopted by the state Board of Education after five months of discussion, public comment, and revision.

For second graders, for example, the standard is to “discuss the range of ways people express their gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior.”

“Gendered stereotypes are real and can have negative consequences for children’s academic growth, self-worth, and mental health as they get older,” Allen-McMillan wrote. “These standards are designed to ensure that children understand that everyone has the ability to live their life in the way that suits them, no matter their gender. They should also help children to understand that every person deserves respect, no matter their identity or expression.”

Republican state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio of Morris County has decried the Murphy administration’s “thirst for social engineering,” calling it “committed to stripping little kids of their childhoods.” He has introduced bills to make school curriculum public and to require school boards to post their agendas 48 hours before meetings.

In an interview Tuesday, Pennacchio took issue with the law signed last year regarding the state’s diversity and inclusion instruction. Although the law says “each school district shall incorporate instruction on diversity and inclusion in an appropriate place in the curriculum of students in grades kindergarten through 12,” he and other Republican legislators had tried unsuccessfully to apply that only to high school students.

Murphy said Tuesday night on his regular call-in radio show that some of the sample materials circulating with some “pretty graphic stuff” that made him “uncomfortable” as a father and that “everything needs to be age-appropriate.”

But the governor added the Department of Education’s memo “clears up a lot of the questions, and you realize pretty quickly this was culture war stuff.”

“Shame on the folks that were trying to turn it into that,” Murphy said on WBGO in Newark. “I think (the standards are) overwhelmingly laudable.

“Enough already in laying into LGBTQIA+ community members,” he added. “Let’s stop having folks opportunistically divide us. … Let’s be fair about this. Let’s be responsible.”

Nationally, laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in pre-school through third grade, and 15 similar laws proposed in other states, are causing concern among advocates for LGBTQ students.

They cite a 2021 survey from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit, that showed 42% of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Some proposed laws would require teachers to notify families if a student comes out to them. One in Kansas would deem it a misdemeanor to distribute classroom materials promoting homosexuality.

Gopal said his bill would reinforce the difference between state standards, which describe expectations of what students should know, and curriculum, developed locally by teachers and school district leaders, to be approved by the local board of education. He said the Senate Education Committee plans to take up the bill when it reconvenes on May 9.

The measure would need to be passed by the full Senate and state Assembly before Murphy could decide whether to sign it into law.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.

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Tina Kelley may be reached at [email protected].

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