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N.J. school officials stand firm on new sex education standards
<h1>N.J. school officials stand firm on new sex education standards</h1>
<p class="byline">by Dana DiFilippo, <a href=https://newjerseymonitor.com/2022/05/04/n-j-school-officials-stand-firm-on-new-sex-education-standards/"https://newjerseymonitor.com">New Jersey Monitor</a> <br />May 4, 2022</p>
New Jersey education officials didn’t act Wednesday to change new state standards on health and sex education, despite outcry from some parents, lawmakers, and even members of the board that passed the standards.
Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan spoke for nearly a half-hour during the state Board of Education’s monthly meeting, saying she “wholeheartedly disagrees” with critics who oppose the new standards.
“It is a disservice and actively harmful to deny our students medically accurate, age- and developmentally appropriate information about their bodies, and about the personal and interpersonal relationships that shape childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood,” Allen-McMillan said.
New Jersey adopted the new standards without much fanfare in 2020, but complaints erupted in recent weeks after state Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) last month posted sample lesson plans — created by a Washington, D.C., sex-education group — that Schepisi called highly sexualized and age-inappropriate. Criticism since then has centered on concerns about what schools might teach about pornography, masturbation, and gender identity and expression.
The pushback prompted Gov. Phil Murphy to direct the Department of Education to review the standards and clarify guidelines for what’s age-appropriate.
Four members of the state school board sent Allen-McMillan a letter Tuesday urging her to remove “some of the more controversial and graphic language” in the standards, according to NJ Spotlight. The letter also asked her to convene a committee of experts, educators, parents, and others to examine the new standards, as well as preexisting standards passed in 2014, “for some potential adjustments.”
Two of those letter signers, Andrew Mulvihill and Mary Beth Berry, piped up at Wednesday’s meeting.
Mulvihill, the board’s vice president, said he has talked to many parents who fundamentally disagree with some of the standards, based on their moral and religious beliefs.
“They’re offended by it. They’re upset by it. It’s a problem for them,” Mulvihill said. “And I think some of my fellow board members are failing to realize — and I don’t know that the commissioner realizes this — I think there’s actually a political view. It is not all science. It is not all just experts. There is a political and a moral view that is being put forth by the state of New Jersey on some of these issues.”
Parents can opt out of sex education. Berry said she worries students who get pulled out of class for this reason could feel alienated.
“What kind of mixed signals are we going to be sending to children if some are going into another room?” she said.
Allen-McMillan said many critics of the new standards are “misguided or misinformed.” She reminded board members the state merely sets standards, which essentially are guidelines for what concepts students should know and when. Local school boards are tasked with creating curricula based on the standards — and should be considering public input when doing so, she said.
If state officials begin micromanaging what local schools should teach children, school board member Joseph Ricca mused, where would it end?
“Limiting education to topics that make us comfortable, or banning books because we don’t like what they say, these are un-American steps. These are fear tactics,” Ricca said.
School board member Ronald Butcher said he had some concerns about the standards — but didn’t believe his concerns should shape what schools teach children about sex.
“We all have our personal beliefs, but that’s not why we were put on the state Board of Education,” Butcher said. “We were put on the state Board of Education to represent the constituents of the state and to do what’s in the best interest of children, not to promote our own personal ideology.”
While districts are required to implement curricula based on state standards, state officials only check every three years or so to see if local districts are teaching what they should be teaching, Allen-McMillan said. She had no answer for what penalties districts might face for non-compliance, because that historically hasn’t been a problem, she said.
“We have not had districts willfully refuse to teach content,” she said.
Nikita Biryukov contributed to this article.
New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: email@example.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.
Why Sex Education Isn’t Just About Biology Anymore
This is a common mindset among skeptics who do not support comprehensive sex ed, says Meredith Byars, a media specialist at Magic Acceptance Academy in Homewood, Alabama. “So the goal of CSE that is very misunderstood—it is to provide age-appropriate, scientifically accurate information,” says Byars, a trans and nonbinary health educator who has done research on the trans and intersex (those born with a sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male) communities. “And a lot of people that oppose CSE assume that it will promote sexual activity for youth or encourage kids to become trans, and there’s actually no structural or empirical evidence of that.”
In fact, there’s ample research showing that abstinence-only programs neither succeed in reducing rates of teen pregnancies or STDs nor help adolescents delay having intercourse. Moreover, a 2022 study that investigated the long-term impact of CSE programs in 55 U.S. counties shows that there was a decline in teen births after they received federal funding from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program—teen pregnancy rates dropped by an average reduction of over 3 percent during the 20-year period.
In Ferro’s seventh-grade science classroom, sex ed fits neatly into the science curriculum: It does begin with biology. “We talk about cells, we talk about genetics and DNA, we talk about systems and how body systems function,” she says. “And so it kind of made a nice capstone week for us to go in and talk about reproductive systems.”
Given that inclusive sex ed is still contentious in Idaho, Ferro says she primarily sticks to the biology of sex when teaching sex ed, but she has found ways to frame conversations about the social and emotional aspects without being judgmental or trying to tell students what’s right and wrong. “When you get ready to use your body parts, because you’re going to use them at some point, I want you to be able to make the best decisions for you,” she says. “You know your family values, you know your family morals, you know your religious convictions. Let me give you the knowledge that you need to make the best decisions possible with your body.”
To educators like Deborah Roffman, who calls herself a human sexuality educator—not a sex educator—the subject has never been merely about sexual behavior, and therefore the language we use when talking about sex education is also flawed.
“What we tend to do in this culture is take this huge part of life and keep narrowing it down until we get to intercourse,” says Roffman, who has taught sexuality education to young people of all ages since 1971. “It’s really not just about the body parts, it’s about the human being attached to the body parts. And if you think deeply enough about it, sexuality is the essential life force, you know? So why wouldn’t it be connected to everything?”
Information about how sex works from an anatomical perspective will not prepare students for real-life scenarios where they need to make informed decisions about what they want or do not want to do, health educators tell us—and this is where lessons about consent come in.
“Consent education in and of itself does not have to be about hookup culture or premarital sex,” says Laura McGuire, a Florida-based sexuality educator and former middle and high school teacher. And regardless of religious values, McGuire explains, students will need to know about consent because “even when they get married, right, don’t you want them to have this foundation of what it means to interact with the other person intimately?”
Human sexuality is everything “connected meaningfully to issues of sex, gender, and reproduction,” says Roffman. She stresses that the common discourse around sex is still very limited because “if we think about the way we define the word sex still as penis and vagina, look what that says to gay kids: ‘All right. You don’t exist, you don’t have sex, you don’t have sexuality.’”
For teachers like McGuire and Byars who live in states like Florida and Alabama that recently passed laws that would ban discussion around sexual orientation and gender—and restrict health care for trans youth—implementing an inclusive and comprehensive sex ed curriculum is one way they say they’re showing up for their marginalized students, especially trans students, to help them feel safe and included.
Geoffrey Carlisle, a middle school science teacher in Austin, Texas, says he was motivated to teach sex ed partly because of his “damaging experience” with the subject. “The first time a teacher ever acknowledged that queer people like me existed was when my eighth-grade health science teacher said that gay men are the ones who get HIV and it’s fatal,” says Carlisle. “Then she just moved on, and I never had another teacher talk about LGBTQ+ people until I was in college.”
Failing to recognize diverse sexualities drives up rates of depression, leaves the door open to bullying and violence, and leads to higher rates of dropping out and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community, according to a 2021 survey by the Trevor Project. With those statistics in mind, Carlisle’s first priority is to create a learning environment where students across gender, sex, and sexuality spectrums feel seen and valued. “A pitfall that some curriculums fall into is only presenting relationships or individuals in these curriculums as cisgender and heterosexual,” he says.
In fact, behavioral and community health researchers who studied sex ed programs in 11 states found that when students had access to LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed programs, there were fewer reports of homophobia-related bullying—and more positive mental health outcomes for all students on campus.
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