New Jersey’s sex education argument continues to fester

New Jersey graphic rainbow colors with youth graphic

New sex education standards have put anti-LGBTQ parents right into the forefront of the culture wars

New Jersey parents continue to express distaste for the state’s health and physical education curriculum. The now over two-year-long argument heightens conflict and tension in public schools across the state. 

The revised version of the Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE) was adopted in June 2020. The Standard acts as a “blueprint” for schools’ curriculum development, and, according to the State, it reflects “the latest research for effective health and physical education programs.” 

“…[As the 2022 year came] to an end, there has yet to be a consensus about the Standard or a compromise between parents and educators…”

Although the updates in the Standard were made to enhance youth learning, the adjustments launched the topic of education right into the forefront of the culture wars. 

The main criticism debated among parents, politicians, and educators is the Standard’s Social and Sexual Health section, which encapsulates the ways in which students learn about and respect the differences of others and themselves. Like religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic background, sexual orientation and gender expression is considered a type of difference that students must learn to understand and respect incrementally throughout their school years. 

By the end of fifth grade, the Standard states that students should understand that “all individuals should feel welcome and included regardless of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” And by the end of eighth grade, students should understand that “inclusive schools and communities are accepting of all people and make them feel welcome and included.” 

These concepts, especially regarding the inclusion and acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, are putting parents in defense mode over their children’s education. 

Across the state, New Jersey has seen the anger over this standard expressed through loud protests, intense Zoom calls, and fiery school board meetings. Each instance has its own grievance, mainly with claims of “indoctrination” and “hypersexualization.” 

Between November and early December 2022, a Burlington County school district made national headlines after Angela Reading, a mother, and member of the Northern Burlington Board of Education, took to social media to voice her opinions over pride flag drawings hung in her daughter’s elementary school. 

“Why are elementary schools promoting/allowing elementary KIDS to research topics of sexuality and create posters,” Reading wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s perverse and should be illegal to expose my kids to sexual content.” 

The Facebook post went viral and received attention and backlash from a high-ranking U.S. military official, Lt. Col. Christopher Schilling. Reading was then featured on the popular, conservative-leaning talk show, Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss the “mind-boggling” situation. 

“I was more than surprised. I was scared,” Reading told Carlson. “I actually pulled my kids from school the day I found out. It was mind-boggling and I was worried for them — when the U.S. military comes after you for simply raising concern about a public poster that is widely available for all to see, it’s just mind-boggling.” 

Around this same time period, the Hunterdon Central Regional High School district in Hunterdon County also received press and backlash at a heated board of education meeting after a group of parents found out that the student’s Gay-Straight Alliance (The PULSE) club hosted a drag show earlier that year. 

A number of parents spoke up at the meeting, claiming the Board is “hiding evil” and “pushing an agenda.” Some claimed the board was promoting “sexual ideologies” and that the drag show is “sexually grooming children.” One Readington Township resident, Lee Mack, insinuated that the board potentially “victimized” students into undergoing “sex-change” surgeries, and gave a shout-out to a website for those who may regret medical operations.

However, for every irritated parent or guardian speaking up against the club’s drag show, there was a club member or faculty voice there supporting and defending the organization’s event and presence in the district. 

“The purpose of PULSE is for LGBTQIA+ students and allies to have a safe space where they can be themselves,” Syla Sova, sophomore and co-president of the PULSE club said. “Safety and security of our club members are what we strive for and it’s very disheartening to hear that some people do not want us to be ourselves.” 

A phrase that parents and agreeing politicians often use to explain their frustration with the topic or mention of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools is the concept of “parents’ rights.” In other words, the argument becomes not just about what is being taught in educational settings, but who is responsible to teach certain lessons — teachers or parents. 

Because the NJSLS-CHPE is just a guideline, individual schools are charged with the task of developing specific curriculums to teach students. In some districts, curriculums are being built internally among educators. In others, schools are trying to find ways to balance parents’ pleas and the mandatory markers of the standards. 

At a December board of education meeting in West Caldwell, parents and the board went back and forth to discuss the ways in which they can best implement the Standard as loosely as possible. 

“The standards have to be followed,” board member Chris Elko said. “We can’t play around with the standards, but how we teach standards, there is a lot of interpretation here.” 

Schools in the state are required to post their curriculums online for the public to view. In another attempt to find harmony between the Standard and opposers, parents have the ability to “opt” their children out of certain lessons they disagree with.

Although this option is available, not all parents believe it is a proper compromise. 

“This opt-out thing doesn’t make much sense,” Frank Voccio, a West Caldwell parent said at the meeting. “You are going to take one or two kids out of the classroom, it’s still the material. You know little kids. If I pass gas, my kids tell the entire neighborhood.”

As semesters continue and the 2022 year comes to an end, there has yet to be a consensus about the Standard or a compromise between parents and educators. Districts continue to host board meetings to hear concerns, parents continue to organize protests and reconsider where their children learn, and politicians continue to use the divisive stance to win votes with their aligning political parties. By June 2023, the argument will officially be three years old.