Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said opposition to New Jersey’s school mask mandate is “a decidedly minority view.” (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
With some New Jersey classrooms re-opening to students this week, activists who championed a law mandating school districts develop an LGBTQ curriculum say they are focusing on ensuring the state’s 600 districts are teaching the lessons required by the law.
Schools should have already integrated the curriculum that teaches the historical and societal contributions of LGBTQ people, but organizations that helped write the law want the state Department of Education to issue guidance to districts still recovering from a chaotic school year.
“It’s critical in ensuring consistent delivery of the lessons,” said Christian Fuscarino, director of Garden State Equality.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in 2019, making New Jersey the first state to require students to learn about the societal and historical contributions of LGBTQ figures and people with disabilities in all subject areas. The mandate went into effect for the 2020-21 school year.
When schools suddenly pivoted to remote learning, some of the lessons were inevitably not taught, Fuscarino said. There’s no way to know which schools already incorporated the lessons, or to what standard they’re teaching them, but Fuscarino said he’s confident not every district incorporated LGBTQ curriculum into every subject area.
“We do believe the DOE needs to speed up the process and not take much longer,” he said.
The DOE is not required to put out any guidelines or resources, but worked with school officials and LGBTQ organizations to help create what is available, a Murphy spokesperson said, adding school districts shouldn’t be waiting for more guidance to begin teaching.
LGBTQ advocacy organizations have noted the DOE has previously released guidance to schools regarding transgender students, healthy school programs, and the Amistad Commission. Guidance wasn’t required for any of those, Fuscarino said.
“The Department of Education has always excelled at creating model policy and resources, so once they release that guidance, it will only enhance and strengthen what schools districts and boards of education have already put in place,” said Sharon Cuttle, the first nonbinary person to serve on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.
Garden State Equality offers districts lesson plans that lay out curriculum guidelines. Furiscano estimates dozens of schools have downloaded them, but he doesn’t know the total.
“While we can recommend to schools this curriculum we’ve written that’s in line with the law, it’s not fair to school districts if the state isn’t saying what the guidelines are,” he said. The organization is encouraging its members to contact their local school district to ensure everything is being taught.
“Model guidance policy helps formulate the best possible lessons, but hopefully most districts like ours have already taken heed and taken steps ensure curricula to support students, parents and faculty,” said Cuttle.
GOP gubernatorial candidates fuel false rhetoric on curriculum
In July, Jack Ciattarelli, the GOP nominee for governor, came under fire for falsely claiming that sixth graders are learning “sodomy” when he vowed to reverse the 2019 law. Meanwhile, his running mate, former state Sen. Diane Allen, said in August middle schools are learning “to describe things that I’m not going to get into on the radio” when asked about the LGBTQ lesson requirement.
Their comments appear to conflate the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum law with another law Murphy signed in 2020 that updated sex education standards.
This narrative leaves parents confused or misinformed about the curriculum, said Kate Okeson, founder of Monmouth County LGBTQ nonprofit Make it Better for Youth. When LGBTQ people only come up in the context of their sexual activity, she said, “that’s a dogwhistle we’re trying to counteract that’s damaging to kids.”
Advocates say the law makes school environments safer for all students, regardless of their age. LGBTQ students face more bullying and lack of visibility in schools, and the legislation is focused at improving those student outcomes, said Kate Okeson, founder of Monmouth County LGBTT nonprofit Make it Better for Youth.
Okeson has been a teacher for 25 years, and said lessons have sparked new conversations that haven’t been talked about regularly in classrooms before. She led the writing team for a pilot program that took place in 12 schools across New Jersey, including Rumson and Haddon Heights.
“The governor believes that teaching New Jersey’s students about the significant contributions and diverse histories of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters will build accepting and welcoming communities,” said Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for Murphy.
A spokeswoman for Ciattarelli’s campaign did not return a request for comment.
The two laws are different than how they’ve been described by Ciattarelli and other opponents, advocates said.
“For every class, the lessons are age appropriate. In elementary school, you’d maybe have a book about two male penguins raising a baby penguin,” Fuscirano said. “Those who try to say these lessons are all about sex don’t know the reality is it’s purely about identity and loving relationships between two people.”
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