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April 12, 2022

Gov. Murphy's comments reignite controversy over New Jersey's sex education standards

Senate Republicans said that many parents have been struggling with the pandemic and were unaware of the changes

Education LGBTQ
NJ Education Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

New Jersey's Board of Education approved changes to the state's health and sex education standards in 2020, which will go into effect in 2022. The changes have sparked controversy among parents and Republican lawmakers.

New health and sex education standards in New Jersey will go into effect this fall, but the changes have sparked some controversy among state and federal lawmakers who believe some of the learning materials are inappropriate for elementary-aged students. 

The standards were passed in an 8-4 vote by the New Jersey Board of Education in June 2020 and expand the state's health curriculum to determine what students should be taught about pregnancy outcomes, consent, gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Each of the standards
are broken down by grade level, determining what objective the students should have learned by the end of second, fifth, eighth and 12th grades. For students up to second grade, some of the new standards include teaching that students grow at different rates and that every individual has unique skills and qualities. 

The update includes references to the state's consent curriculum, which allows schools to teach about consent for physical contact or sexual activity beginning in sixth grade. The changes also remove gender-specific language from the standards, swapping out gendered pronouns in exchange for gender-neutral ones. 

"We know a lot of young people who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender often say they don't feel reflected in the language," Dan Rice, director of Answer, a national sex education organization, told "By not assuming (gender) identities, we are bringing them back into the fold." 

In the list of approved standards, new changes for how these broad lessons would be taught to students have some parents concerned about whether or not the curriculum is age-appropriate. 

By the end of second grade, children would be taught medically-accurate terminology for body parts, including genitals. Lessons on how individuals can choose how they identify themselves would include discussions of the "range of ways people express their gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior." 

Students would begin to learn about changes within the body during puberty by the end of fifth grade. This included common human sexual development, like masturbation, romantic and sexual feelings and explanations of physical and emotional changes that occur during that time period. 

Students at that age group would also be taught the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity and would learn how to "promote dignity and respect" for people regardless of their identities. 

By the end of eighth grade, students would be introduced to pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes, including birth, adoption, and abortion. Students would also learn about sexual health and safe sex practices. 

Opponents say new standards are 'outrageous'

Though the standards were criticized by Republican lawmakers and conservative groups when they were approved, Murphy's comments on Monday about teaching gender identity to elementary school students sparked additional controversy among those groups. 

"Number one, I think that there's some sort of sense that parents have no say, and I would just say emphatically that parents absolutely should have a say in this sort of stuff — Along with all other interested parties, but probably none are more interested than parents," Murphy said

He went on to say that he doesn't like that people are using those feelings to "divide us," speaking on behalf of the LGBTQIA community. He later said he would "entertain" an adjustment to the changes if enough parents opposed them.

In letters to Murphy and lead Democratic state Sen. Nick Scutari, eight Republican Senate leaders noted that when the changes were approved in June 2020, many parents and families in New Jersey were struggling with the impacts of the pandemic and were unaware of the changes to the health curriculum. 

"It's no surprise, then, that parents were completely unaware of these changes or the impact they would have in classrooms until local school districts started sharing resources recently to demonstrate how topics such as sexual activity, masturbation, and gender may be discussed with children at various grade levels to comply with the new curriculum standards," state lawmakers wrote.

The letters urge the governor to halt the implementation of these curriculum standards until the state can hold public hearings on the topics. 

Sample lesson plans from sex education advocacy group Advocates for Youth include an example of classroom activities designed to teach children about gender identity. One of the activities is designed to teach children that they can play with any toys they want, even if they are marketed for a specific gender. 

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew announced that he would soon introduce the "My Child, My Choice" bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. The curriculum transparency bill would require parental consent before children could be taught about sexual orientation or gender identity. 

"Parents are outraged, as they should be," Van Drew said. "These policies and guidance are forcing parents out of the equation relating to their child's education and is government overreach at its finest. Parents deserve to have a say in what their children learn in school, and I would bet that it does not include teaching six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds about sexual orientation. This is outrageous. This is unbelievable. This is just wrong."

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet told that parents have the right to opt out of instruction they do not want their child to learn and that local school boards get to decide what lessons are taught. Supporters of the change, including the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, believe that comprehensive sex education is a step toward a safer state for young people. 

Legislation like Congressman Van Drew's proposal have become increasingly common since Florida's state legislature passed Gov. Ron DeSantis' "Don't Say Gay" bill, which prohibits discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity between kindergarten and third grade. Since its passage, more than a dozen states have put forth their own versions of the bill, including Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee. 

Though unlikely to gain traction in the Democrat-led House of Representatives, Van Drew's "My Child, My Choice" bill is just one of dozens seeking to bar discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.