NJ school officials reject call to reevaluate sex ed standards passed in 2020

A masked teacher with glasses, wearing a red shirt and brown slacks, looks at a laptop as she sits at a desk separated by a folding white partition from the row in front where another person sits.
The New Jersey State Board of Education rejected Wednesday a request to postpone implementation of new sex education standards. (Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

The majority of state school board members and Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan Wednesday defended a nearly two-year-old decision to include controversial topics, such as gender identity and abortion, in the state’s new sex education standards.

The discussion on the 2020 revision of state learning standards for comprehensive health and physical education came up during the board’s virtual monthly meeting, a month after a social media post sparked a national firestorm of scrutiny from Republican elected officials. 

The post in early April from Republican state Sen. Holly Schepisi, who represents a cluster of affluent towns in northern Bergen County, led Gov. Phil Murphy to ask the state education department for clarity on age-appropriate guidelines.

Four state school board members — Andrew Mulvihill, Jack Fornaro, Mary Beth Gazi, and Mary Beth Berry — voted against the revised sex education standards in 2020 and wrote a letter to Allen-McMillan Tuesday ahead of the board meeting. The letter requested a reexamination of the standards, removal of “some of the more controversial and graphic language,” and to delay implementation of the standards.

But, during the Wednesday meeting, Board President Kathy Goldenberg said there would not be a vote to postpone the implementation of the new standards, set to begin in September.

“At this point there will be no votes taken today,” Goldenberg said. “It’s not on the agenda. We won’t be doing it. It won’t happen.”

Allen-McMillan released a memo mid-April addressed to local district leaders that explained the “intent and spirit” of the sex education standards that were revised in June 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The previous standards were set in 2014. The 13-member New Jersey State Board of Education voted 9-4 to update the standards in a resolution after five months of discussion, public comment, and revisions. 

“I firmly support the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards in comprehensive health and physical education,” Allen-McMillan said at the meeting. “I recognize that the department can strengthen our efforts to clarify the meaning and scope of the standards for educators.” 

She also said she “wholeheartedly disagrees” with critics of the revised standards. One of the guidelines that concerns critics requires second-graders to learn about the “range of ways people express their gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior.”

“These standards are designed to ensure that children understand that everyone has the ability to live their life in the way that suits them, no matter their gender,” Allen-McMillan said in her memo last month. “They should also help children to understand that every person deserves respect, no matter their identity or expression.”

Local school districts must align sex education curriculum with the revised New Jersey Student Learning Standards for comprehensive health and physical education by September.

Here are some highlights of learning expectations that were added in 2020 by the state school board:

  • Second graders should learn the medically accurate names for body parts, including genitals, and the range of ways people express their gender. They should also learn how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior.
  • Fifth graders should learn about sexual development and the role of hormones when it comes to romantic and sexual feelings, masturbation, mood swings, and the timing of the onset of puberty. Fifth graders should also learn how to differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • By eighth grade, students should be able to define vaginal, oral, and anal sex, and develop a plan to eliminate or reduce risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Eighth-graders should also learn about pregnancy testing, the signs of pregnancy, and pregnancy options, including parenting, abortion, and adoption.
  • By 12th grade, students should be able to analyze the influences of peers, family, media, social norms, and culture on the expression of gender, sexual orientation, and identity. Students should also learn to advocate for school and community policies and programs that promote dignity and respect for people of all genders, gender expressions, gender identities, and sexual orientations.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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