New sex education standards become target in N.J.

Fatima Fokina

Last year, Scott Shields hired a painter for his house who was a transgender man. When his two children unknowingly misgendered the painter, Shields pulled them aside to explain pronouns.

His children, who are in kindergarten and third grade, had already been introduced to different genders, so they grasped the concept easily, he said.

“Once I corrected them, they got it. Kids get these things, and it seems to me like the earlier kids understand these concepts, the easier they are to process later,” he said. “I don’t think they know about hormones or reassignment surgery because that’s not for their age.”

Shields is a parent who’s supportive of New Jersey’s updated sex education standards, set to be rolled out in schools in the fall and currently the target of conservative parents and Republican lawmakers. One called them “Trenton’s assault on parental rights.”

For second graders, the new standards mean teachers discussing gender role stereotypes and how people can express how they feel. By the end of fifth grade, students should be able to differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity. 

And by eighth grade, teachers should be developing a plan to promote dignity and respect for all gender expressions, and students should know the difference between genders, gender identity, and sexual orientation. In 12th grade, students will learn about birth control options, STDs, and consent. 

“It just seems backwards to me that this is somehow seen as harmful or promoting anything. We’re going to look back on this in 20, 30 years and see how LGBT youth and trans youth are being scapegoated, and it’s awful,” Shields said.

‘Overwhelming for our kids’

Researchers and experts say there is overwhelming support among parents for expanded sex education, but some parents are taking issue with the new standards. They say they go too far, are graphic in nature, and are inappropriate for young children. 

“You want to teach acceptance, that’s one thing. Teach them that everyone matters and respect and that we should be accepting, 100%. But you’re not going to teach them different sexes and the names of their body parts, and what to do with these body parts,” said Nancy Weuste, who lives in Passaic. “It’s overwhelming for kids. They just want to be with their friends.”

Weuste became worried about what will be taught to young kids in schools after delving into model instructional materials state Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) shared on Facebook last week. One of the lesson plans for second graders Schepisi shared, titled “Understanding Our Bodies,” details how to differentiate between male and female body parts.

“At what point do we draw the line?” asked Weuste, who has a daughter attending high school in the fall.

The new standards were approved by the state Board of Education in June 2020.

‘Stirring this up’

Montclair researchers Eva Goldfarb and Lisa Lieberman studied 30 years of sex education literature and its effects on children. They say the reaction to the new standards has been dominated by a loud minority who are seeking to take advantage of a national debate that has focused on classroom instruction about the LGBT community.

“The vast majority of parents support quality, inclusive sex education. I think some folks are stirring this up for political advantage and are not being truthful in what they’re saying,” said Lieberman.

After conservative media aired segments about New Jersey’s new standards — Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity discussed them on Fox News last week — lawmakers announced plans to introduce bills aiming to limit the level of sex education taught in schools, and likened the expanded guidelines to child abuse. 

Sen. Holly Schepisi, a Bergen County Republican, said she “respectfully disagrees” with researchers who tout teaching sex education to young students. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Schepisi told the New Jersey Monitor this is not about politics, but about being a caring parent. 

“I’m a real moderate person who supports LGBTQ youth. This just seems so extreme and so far off the reservation of stuff we should be teaching children of these age groups,” she said. “I think that a lot of frustration and anger being expressed by parents is because how these standards they view as extreme were adopted.” 

Her main concern isn’t with the topics being taught, she said, but when they’re being introduced to students. She fears girls who are tomboys or boys who are effeminate will try to be “convinced they’re something they’re not,” she said.

GOP senators sent a letter to the governor demanding he pause implementation and said they want to hold public hearings on the matter. The state education board held public meetings when the standards were first adopted, but critics note they came just a few months after the pandemic had caused widespread business shutdowns and led many people to stay indoors to avoid infection.

Murphy said Wednesday he’d ask the Department of Education to clarify the standards, but defended them as age-appropriate, and accused some lawmakers of attacking the standards just to make political gains. 

Goldfarb and Lieberman called the new standards some of the best in the nation. In their studies, they found comprehensive sex education beginning in younger ages can help create a strong foundation for “lifelong sexual health.” 

They compared sex education to math: Teachers wouldn’t expect eighth graders to start learning algebra if they never completed lessons on long division, fractions, or basic addition and subtraction. Teaching kids about concepts like gender identity in their formative years will help them better apply and understand the topics in the future, they said.

And at the higher grade levels, their studies found sex education leads to decreased domestic violence between partners, among other things. Mental health also improves among LGBT students when sex education is inclusive to all genders and sexual orientation, they said.

“This sets the stage for anti-bullying, and anti-harassment that comes into play later in life. We’re building basic foundational blocks for what’s appropriate at each grade level,” said Goldfarb,

Opting out

Parents who don’t want their children to learn about certain topics or sex education can opt out, the Department of Education said in a statement. A spokesman said the department does not mandate curriculum, and local school districts create their own lesson plans.

Goldfarb said the concerted effort to fight comprehensive education hurts progress made in the LGBT community.

Schepisi has been accused by the statewide teachers union of spreading misinformation about the new standards. She noted the documents she shared last week were released by the Westfield school district as sample lesson plans. The Westfield superintendent has said they are not lesson plans and said they illustrate “the type of possible resources for school districts shared by the N.J. Department of Education.” 

There’s no evidence any New Jersey school district has adopted the materials Schepisi shared.  

Weuste, the Passaic mom, said even if the documents do not exactly reflect what schools are teaching, they show how far new curriculum might go in classrooms. She said parents should introduce subjects like gender identity and sexual orientation to their young kids.

She’s also concerned educators might try to impose their own opinions on young kids that might go against what their families believe. She said schools should bring back classes like home economics and cooking.  

“Kids don’t know how to sign a check. They shouldn’t be removing basic essential education for this sexual orientation and gender lessons in school. I think some things shouldn’t be taught in schools, or you teach them way down the line, but you don’t have to incorporate it with every aspect of your studies,” she said.

Researchers say the opposite. Teaching topics like inclusivity and consent leads to increased reporting of sexual violence, decreased use of drugs and alcohol before sex, and safer and more empathetic interpersonal relationships.  

Schepisi said she “respectfully disagrees” with the researchers.

Benjamin O, a Bergen County resident who asked not to be identified due to his job, has a son in first grade who will be learning some of these topics in the fall. He agrees with Shields on the impact these topics have on promoting inclusivity and support for at-risk youth.

“I feel like these are important things to be educating our kids on,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of information going around but it seems right for me and my kids.”

Benjamin has a son who was bullied because he likes to wear pink and likes unicorns. But his son also likes trucks and dinosaurs, things he wasn’t bullied for by the kids at school, Benjamin said.

“Kids already know and understand gender roles. He’s a boy and says he’s a boy and thinks he’s a boy, but he’s still getting bullied. It’s already a part of their lives, so having more education around it reduces harm,” he said. “I think it’s just really important.” 

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New sex education standards become target in N.J.

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