Revised sex-education standards are coming to N.J. schools in September. Here’s why they’re controversial.
The guidelines, which outline what schools should teach students by the end of second, fifth, eighth and 12th grade, have also prompted an outcry from some parents.
New Jersey’s revised sex-education standards for public school students have garnered national attention after political leaders raised questions about the guidelines to be implemented this fall.
The guidelines, which outline what schools should teach students by the end of second, fifth, eighth, and 12th grade, have also prompted an outcry from some parents. The most controversial concepts revolve around lessons that discuss gender identity by the end of second grade; puberty and masturbation by the end of fifth grade; and understanding types of intercourse by eighth grade. Here is some background on the controversy:
What’s the origin of the changes?
In 2020, after five months of discussion, public comments and revisions, New Jersey adopted revised Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education — a 66-page document that established core ideas for sex education intended to promote physical and emotional well-being among students. Some of the guidelines are similar to the previous set released in 2014, but the latest adds “performance expectations” and language around masturbation and types of sexual activity.
While implementation of the standards was delayed after the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, the standards are now expected to take effect in September, barring any changes. School districts are in the process of revising their curricula to meet the new expectations.
Why are they controversial?
The controversy was ignited in February after sample sex-education lesson plans posted online, including by State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R., Bergen), and distributed to parents at a Westfield Public Schools board meeting said that second graders would learn about gender identity and that they can have “boy parts” but “feel like” a girl. The standards listed a performance expectation that students should be able to discuss how people express their gender.
Superintendent Raymond Gonzalez has said the materials were presented only as a resource, and the district has not updated its curriculum to comply with revised state standards.
Two other standards have prompted the biggest outcry from critics: teaching fifth graders about concepts that could include masturbation, and romantic and sexual feelings, and teaching eighth graders about making healthy decisions about sex, which could include being able to define vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse.
Does the state determine lesson plans?
No. While the state sets the standards, or expectations of what students should learn, it doesn’t provide curriculum or lesson plans to districts.
Instead, the state leaves it to districts to select instructional materials that reflect the values of their local community. School boards are encouraged to get community feedback from parents, business leaders, and other stakeholders.
The state noted that the performance expectations are “merely examples,” and schools are not required to include specific words or concepts cited by the state in order to meet the standards.
Can parents dispute the curriculum?
Parents have the right to opt their children out of the lessons. They must submit a signed statement to the school indicating the instruction in health, family life, or sex education conflicts with moral or religious beliefs and the student should be excused from that portion of the course.
What happens next?
Gov. Phil Murphy has directed the state Department of Education to review the curriculum and “provide further clarification on what age-appropriate guidelines look like for our students.” A timeline was not provided.
State Sen. Vin Gopal (D., Monmouth), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, plans to introduce the “Transparency in Health & Sex Education Curriculum” bill to clarify the sex-education standards. Among other provisions, it would require school districts to place all curricula on their website 14 days before the start of the school year.