Ocean City argues over new sex education standards

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Criticism continues to rise over New Jersey’s new sex education standards.  

The state’s new guidelines, the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE), were revised back in June 2020. By the fall of this year, all public schools across the state were to adopt updated education curriculums based on these standards. However, the subject matter contained within the gridlines, which includes teaching gender fluidity and sexual orientation acceptance by the end of fifth grade, continues to be deemed controversial amongst some opposing parents and politicians.

In Ocean City, protests and marches against updating the school curriculums in the city broke out with angered parents claiming the updated state standards are inappropriate and an aid to the sexualization of children. On Aug. 24, the Ocean City Board of Education (OCBOE) announced the adoption of an “age-appropriate” amended health and physical education curriculum. The city’s amendment met the minimum requirements for the state’s new learning standard.

“We amended our health and physical education curriculum with a team of teachers and administrators with the goal of compliance with the minimum requirements,” Ocean City School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Friedman said in a Board news release. “We made revisions in a thoughtful manner and want our school families to be involved.”

Ocean City School District follows District Policy 5250: Health and Physical Education, which states, “Any student whose parent presents to the principal a signed statement that any part of the instruction in health, family life education, or sex education is in conflict with his/her conscience or sincerely held moral or religious beliefs shall be excused from that portion of the course where such instruction is being given and no penalties as to credit or graduation shall result.”

Although the city made amendments to appease critics of the curriculum change, and students have the option to be excused from portions of the teachings, some residents in the area are still unhappy.

On the evening of Sept. 8, more than 100 people gathered across from City Hall at Mark Soifer Park for an hour-long combination political rally, protest and Christian revival meeting. At the protest, three candidates running for OCBOE, Robin Shaffer, Catherine Panico and Liz Nicoletti, who consistently asked the board to vote against the new standard, spoke to the crowd.

Also addressing the crowd was Rev. Gregory Quinlan, the president and executive director of The Center for Garden State Families based in Parsippany. According to the Ocean City Sentinel, “Quinlan offered a fiery, Bible-infused speech condemning homosexuality and claiming state programs are ‘grooming children for sex traffickers.’”
During his speech, Quinlan claimed the Christian Jesus to be the defining factor of family, saying statements such as, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve in Eden,” and “No one is born gay.” Because of his belief, he stated to the crowd that the state should not be “indoctrinating” and “sexualizing” children with the new sex education standard.

Members and friends of Ocean City’s LGBTQ community took offense to the demonstration. Following the protest, an Ocean City High School (OCHS) alumnus created a Change.org petition titled “LGBTQ STUDENTS BELONG AT OCHS.”

“Those who attended the rally on Thursday have been spreading blatantly dangerous and false notions about the Queer community,” the petition stated. “They are seeking to shun us from society. They are seeking to turn back the clock to a time when gay and trans people were subjugated under the same ‘pedophile’ or ‘groomer’ charge. It’s bullshit.”

By asking people to sign the petition, the community was hoping to send a message to the OCBOE and schools that “queer kids belong here.”

That same night, however, another turn was made. The OCBOE met and backed the protesters by unanimously adopting the Parents Bill of Rights, aimed to give parents greater control over their children’s education.

“I am introducing the Parents Bill of Rights because the government was not being open, honest, and transparent with the parents in this state,” said Councilman Tom Rotondi, who introduced and sponsored the resolution.

In remarks during the council meeting, Rotondi said the Parents Bill of Rights is not a direct opposition to the state’s new standards, but that it is an “an open, transparent process” that will include the parents in the development of the state’s sex education curriculum.

Ten days after the protest and the board’s decision, over 100 Ocean City members met on the boardwalk at Fifth Street to support OCHS students and push back against the recent anti-gay rhetoric. An organizer of this We Belong Rally and Welcome Walk, 38-year-old Stacy Merkh, told the Ocean City Sentinel that it was a direct response to the Sept. 8 gathering.

Another organizer of the Welcome Walk, Ellen Byrne, who volunteers with the Ocean City Drama Guild, said she has witnessed discriminatory behavior first-hand.

“When kids are doing a theatrical performance and someone is yelling ‘You’re a bunch of faggots,’ that’s not productive. That’s not advancing any kind of understanding,” Byrne said in an interview with the Ocean City Sentinel. “People just want to be accepted for who they are. They are not trying to hurt anybody, not trying to impose their views on anybody; they just want to be accepted for who they are. They want to feel safe in the whole school, not just part of it.”

LGBTQ students and allies continue to feel unwelcome in Ocean City. On Oct. 19, parents and students pleaded to the board to end the bullying of queer students and to make clear that LGBTQ students are welcomed in the district.

Many of the statements given during the public comment section surround the distaste the community has over certain statements made by parents and social media accounts moderated by OCBOE candidates.

One Upper Township resident, Christine Stanford, stated she witnessed “hate on full display,” stating that one parent even called for segregation of LGBTQ students with special pronouns from the rest of the students, so that “they could be with their own people.” “It’s hard enough to be a teenager in a changing world trying to survive high school, trying to figure life out, peers giving them a hard time and now parents too. The kids are watching,” Stanford said. “There are teenagers, current high school students and alumni in that group. They have seen the toxic posts and sadly now the parents’ narrow-minded views are trickling down to the children.”

Out In Jersey News Editor Chelsey Johnstone is an award-winning multimedia journalist and editor with a passion for honest reporting. A recent graduate of Montclair State University, Chelsey has spent over 5 years writing for publications such as The College VOICE, TrentonDaily, Unclear Magazine, Montclair Local News and more. Now, Chelsey is working to advance her journalist skills at Out in Jersey Magazine with the hope of positively impacting the world of reporting.