N.J. school officials stand firm on new sex education standards

State school board rejects bid to review standards for now

By: - May 4, 2022 4:33 pm

Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said many critics of the new standards are “misguided or misinformed.”

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.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.