The New Jersey State Board of Education will not review or change its sex education standards scheduled to roll out this fall until the state Attorney General’s Office weighs in.
“At this point there will be no votes taken. It’s not on the agenda. It’s not announced. It won’t happen,” board president Kathy Goldenberg told members during a monthly meeting last week. “If there’s a quorum to do something like that, then we’ll look at that, but at this point it’s not even a remote possibility,” she said.
Goldenberg was reacting to four of the 13 state board members who said the 2020 standards, which introduce education related to gender and sex at an earlier age in elementary school, were offensive to some members of the public.
In 2020 the board voted to adopt the revised Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education that include sex education, designed to teach physical and emotional well-being in schools. The standard also include fitness, substance abuse, relationships and mental health at different grade levels.
Conservative groups have spoken against the standards on the local and state levels and have reached out to members of the board, four of whom wrote a letter to Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of the state Department of Education, asking her to reopen and examine the standards and “potential adjustments” to the language. The letter also asked Allen-McMillan to permit districts to continue teaching the existing 2014 standards until a review of the new standards is completed.
The discussion was not on the board’s meeting agenda, but it began with Allen-McMillan’s detailed opening statement in response to the board members’ letter in which she defended the new standards.
The standards are medically accurate and age- and grade-appropriate, Allen-McMillan said. She said she “wholeheartedly disagrees” with anyone who suggests changing them. Not teaching the standards to students as they navigate an “increasingly complex” social and cultural milieu, she said, would be a “disservice” and would be “actively harmful” to them.
In April, the state Education Department sent a standards clarification document to all schools superintendents, parents and education advocacy groups, after Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a review to “provide further clarification on what age-appropriate guidelines look like for our students.”
The memo said local school districts are free to implement and teach the standards as they see fit, and parents can opt their children out of the lessons.
The memo was not enough, said the four board members, who asked for a more “robust review” of the standards in their letter to Allen-McMillan.
The state Department of Education did not take a position on whether this will happen. Asked if schools should expect more clarification or changes, Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the department, referred to Allen-McMillan’s statements to the State Board of Education.
Murphy’s office has also not taken a formal position on whether he was satisfied with the clarifications the Department of Education issued. However, during a live television call-in show, Murphy told a caller the state’s new standards were about “doing the right thing.”
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Goldenberg also said she is still waiting to hear from the state Attorney General’s Office for advice on whether the board can vote to review the standards and delay the rollout by a month.
Some state board members argued during the meeting that reviewing the standards is not something they should vote on, while others said it’s their duty to set aside their private and religious beliefs and adopt policies that benefit the state’s students.
“My fear comes with communities opting out,” Goldenberg said. The new standards are valuable and necessary for students, she said, pointing to a study that shows one in four girls and one in six boys in New Jersey are abused before they turn 18. She said it’s important that students be aware that sexually transmitted diseases like HPV and HIV can cause harm and death, she said.
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Goldenberg said she worries that the students who opt out will not be prepared to make informed decisions to protect their health and safety when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases.
“Our local boards of education have the rights, responsibility and the direction to do what’s appropriate for their communities,” Goldenberg said, adding that parents should not be frightened by the language in the new standards, as local districts can design the curriculum based on the community’s needs.
“What I have a little bit of smoke about is where local communities might tell their districts what they can and can’t teach, because are we going to go back to saying the world is flat and not round? Are we going back to saying that we didn’t have evolution?” she said.
“I think it’s a dangerous place to be when we start as a body, far removed from the community, to pick and choose what children may or may not learn in the public schools, which are the cradle of democracy,” said board member Joseph Rica.
Board Vice President Andrew Mulvihill, one of the letter’s authors, disagreed. He said he is hearing from people across religious and party lines who “don’t think we’ve got it right” and that it’s important to review the standards and respond to those concerns.
There are people who are spreading misinformation, but there are also those whose beliefs are at odds with the standards, he said.
“I think what is being missed here is that there are people who fundamentally disagree with some of these standards based on their moral and religious beliefs,” Mulvihill said.
.Board members are volunteers appointed to six-year terms by governors to advise the state on educational policy and to approve administrative codes that create rules that govern the state’s K-12 school system.
Board member Mary Beth Berry, who co-authored the letter, said she wants to make all students feel welcomed and included in schools. Having a number of them opt out sends “mixed signals” to children.
“If we’re presenting standards, we should present them so that everyone is comfortable,” Berry said. “I’d rather have us make sure we get the standards correct.”
Elaine Bobrove, a Murphy board appointee, urged Allen-McMillan to find a way to communicate her remarks to the public.
Board member Ronald Butcher did not ask for a review. He said the standards were put in place to deliver factual information to children whose parents might not always be able to provide the information to them.
Board member Jack Fornaro asked for the standards to be postponed until October.
Goldenberg said she is waiting for direction from the Attorney General’s Office.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey’s schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.