The culture war reaches New Jersey schools

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New sex ed curriculum is under attack

A culture war is brewing as Republican senators and conservative parents become increasingly outraged over New Jersey’s new sex education initiative. After the adoption of a revised version of the Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE) — the guidelines by which the state teaches adolescent children about physical and mental well-being — controversies surrounding its content have made national headlines.

The updated version of the NJSLS-CHPE, which was revised during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is a 66 page long document that outlays a foundation for sexual education. As stated in its guidelines, its intent is to “provide a blueprint for curriculum development, instruction, and assessment, and reflect the latest research for effective health and physical education programs.”

While this revision is perpetuated to be a positive change towards improving the educational standards of K-12 learning, many parents are fighting the state and the school systems which seek to embrace the changes this upcoming fall.

One action that kick-started the uproar was the release of sample educational material by a local Union County board. The 11 template-like documents cover a variety of educational materials teachers can use to teach elementary students about topics such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and human anatomy.

One educational template in particular, entitled, “PinkBluePurple” has caused a lot of commotion.

The document itself walks educators through an exercise meant to teach children of the ways in which society allocates certain actions as “for boys” or “for girls.”

In the beginning of the exercise, teachers are guided in asking students which color card, blue or pink, they should hold up if a hypothetical friend is pregnant with a baby girl or baby boy. It is assumed that most children will choose blue for boys and pink for girls. This is meant to teach the children the concept of gender in society.

Teachers are then expected to explain to the children something along the lines of the following:
“Identity starts with an I. That’s how you can remember it. ‘I’ feel, ‘I’ know. Gender identity is that feeling of knowing your gender. You might feel like you are a boy, you might feel like you are a girl. You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts. 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!”

As you can imagine, this narrative, and others like it, has some parents and conservative politicians outraged.

After circulating the lesson plans online, Republican State Senator Holly Schepisi of Bergen stated, “I truly think New Jersey has lost its damn mind.” And although she agreed with some of the templates, she believes “many [of the lesson templates] are completely overboard with cringy detail for young kids and some go so far as unnecessarily sexualizing children further.”

Another problem parents and legislators are having with the newly adopted version of the NJSLS-CHPE is one particular resource shared by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) called “Amaze.” Produced by the Rutgers University group Answer and Advocates for Youth and Youth Tech Health, “Amaze” is a series of cartoons designed to educate 10-14 year-olds about sex, the body and relationships. Their one minute video, “Is It Normal To Watch Porn,” is heavily debated on its appropriateness for children of that age.

As this rage continues to intensify across the state, Governor Phil Murphy has been attempting to deescalate the situation. In a television interview on May 11, he advocated for the updated version of the NJSLS-CHPE, while also pleading for the public to not make this issue a political divide.

“Let’s everybody not use this to divide us,” said Gov. Murphy. “I say that on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ communities.”

According to Murphy, “not everybody is dealing with the facts here.” He believes some Americans are using this controversy as a way to “score political points” and “further divide” political parties.

However, as someone who ultimately believes the education received by children is up to parental figures, the governor said he is “willing to entertain” adjusting some of the new standards if there are “reasonable” concerns.

The day after Gov. Murphy’s television appearance, state Democratic Senator of Monmouth and chairman of the Senate’s education committee, Vin Gopal, made a public Facebook post calling on Murphy to provide public clarification on the adopted curriculum. A day later, on April 14, the governor ordered the NJDOE to review the standards and provide clarity.

With the sex education conflict in the public eye, communities and state organizations have been coming forward to show their support for the latest version of the NJSLS-CHPE. Companies such as Advocates for Youth, Thrive NJ, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ have spoken out.

“Young people need to have the information, resources and skills they need to protect their health and build their future — without shame or judgment,” said Debra Hauser, President of Advocates for Youth. “New Jersey students deserve the best. We need to maintain sex education standards in New Jersey to ensure that every student in the state has access to the high-quality resources and information they need to make healthy decisions, no matter their teacher, school, or district.”

“Just like other subjects, sex education should begin early with foundational and age-appropriate material, like names of body parts, friendship and boundaries, that builds over time,” said Dan Rice, Executive Director of Answer and a Thrive NJ Sex Ed Subcommittee Co-Chair. “New Jersey’s sex education standards ensure all our state’s young people, including those with LGBTQ idenities, receive the knowledge and skills that are foundational to supporting their health and safety.”

While it is comforting for some to hear advocates for the new sex education standards speak out in support, the consistent arguments over youth education standards is worrisome for many people, especially those in the LGBTQ community.

In a recent article from the New Jersey Monitor titled, “Gender identity a lightning rod in N.J. sex ed curriculum debate,” writer Dana DiFillipo likens the recent sex education debate as “echoing the moral panic that has driven legislators around the country to introduce bills that seek to restrict LGBTQ rights.”

In her piece, she speaks to California-based pediatrician Dr. Paria Hassouri, who provides gender-affirming health care to queer youth.

“Schools should teach the range of human identities and the gender spectrum and the sexuality spectrum,” Hassouri said. “This is part of normal human development, so it should be taught. Any parent who has issues with this should consider that their kids are going to be learning things on their own — and who knows if they will get the right or wrong information from what they see on the internet?”

This sex education controversy bleeds into society in similar ways to many of the recent legislative decisions regarding parents’ rights. Between the infamous “Dont Say Gay” bill of Florida, abortion restrictions in Texas, and now the arguments over sex education in New Jersey, for many it is as if some conservatives are looking to move back the progress clock. And while it is currently uncertain as to whether the updates to the NJSLS-CHPE will remain in schools this upcoming fall semester, certainly, many LGBTQ New Jerseyans will continue to fight for progress.

gardenstateequality.org

Journalist Chelsey Johnstone is the former Project Manager for Greater Trenton and was primary writer for TrentonDaily. She is a senior journalism major at Montclair State University and former communication and music student at Mercer County Community College. While attending her community college, Chelsey led her student newspaper, The College VOICE, as Editor-in-Chief. Now, Chelsey is working to advance her journalist skills freelancing for Out in Jersey Magazine and Unclear Magazine with the hope of positively impacting the world of reporting.