Eric Simkin of Voorhees testifies against a bill sponsored by Sen. Vin Gopal to increase curriculum transparency. Also pictured are the Rev. Gregory Quinlan, left, founder of the Center for Garden State Families, and Shawn Hyland, center, of the Family Policy Alliance, who also testified against the bill. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
The lawmakers who sit on New Jersey’s Senate Education Committee usually hear from the public on things like learning loss, bullying, students’ mental health, and school lunches.
On Monday, their meeting veered into uncharted territory.
“Let’s ban Dr. Seuss, but books normalizing children having sex, using sex toys, experiencing glory holes, and crossing boundaries of society’s moral standards, and at times laws, seems to be quite acceptable to some,” Christopher Stadilis told the committee.
Stadilis — who described himself as “not a domestic terrorist” but rather “a concerned parent” — was one of a steady stream of critics who testified for more than two hours Monday before the Senate panel on two bills that had nothing to do with sex toys or any of the other things ascribed to them.
But the bills — one to increase curriculum transparency and another to expand access to menstrual products in schools — have become lightning rods in the battle over New Jersey’s new sex education standards.
Critics, riled up by conservatives who regard the new standards as pornographic and obscene, urged committee members to reject the bills and repeal the new standards. The committee does not have the authority to do so: The state Board of Education sets standards and local schools create and pass curricula based on them. Curricula based on the standards, which the board adopted in June 2020, will be implemented in schools statewide this fall.
“We will not allow our children to be force-fed content we oppose! We will not co-parent with the government!” said Eric Simkin, a parent and school board candidate from Voorhees.
Renata Brand of Monmouth County complained the new standards go “against our Judeo-Christian values,” adding: “The vast majority of parents in New Jersey are Judeo-Christian.”
“Family values are being undermined by the 2020 standards. Parental rights are being subverted by the very schools that were entrusted by the parents to teach our children. The children are being corrupted and confused,” Brand said.
The committee ultimately advanced both bills, with votes split along party lines.
Transparency the goal
The first bill was a measure that would require schools to allow parents to review and ask questions about new health and sex education curricula before their approval by school boards.
The bill also would require districts to post curricula to their websites at least two weeks before classes start and reiterate parents’ rights, as guaranteed in a 1980 state law, to opt their child out of sex education at school.
Advocates from the Center for Garden State Families and Team PYC-Protect Your Children voiced so many objections to the new standards that Sen. Vin Gopal, the committee’s chair, repeatedly reminded them to stay on topic.
“This bill has nothing to do with ideology. It has to do with transparency,” Gopal told one woman.
“I feel there’s a lot of deception in this bill, sir,” the woman responded.
The new standards set guidelines for local districts to teach about certain topics. The more controversial items say students should use correct terminology to identify their body parts by the end of second grade, should learn about gender identity by the end of fifth grade, and should hear about abortion as a pregnancy option by the end of eighth grade.
Critics’ complaints ranged from concerns that sex-ed content would be graphic and not age-appropriate to calls for schools to focus on core academics and leave sex ed to parents.
A grandmother who testified called the standards “illegal, obscene and pornographic” under the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, while another grandmother asked lawmakers to mandate an “opt-in policy” instead of requiring concerned parents to opt their children out of curriculum they oppose.
Many critics were religious. The Rev. Gregory Quinlan, a self-described “ex-gay,” founded the Center for Garden State Families, a Christian group that has advocated against abortion, masking, marijuana, assisted suicide, critical race theory, and “the religion of LGBTQIA-XYZ.” He called the standards “a perversion.”
Quinlan and others also scolded lawmakers for failing to make the bill available for public inspection before its committee vote, citing the irony of the lack of transparency around a bill about transparency.
Late Monday, the bill still was not yet online.
“This disrespect to the people in New Jersey when it comes to legislation has got to stop,” Quinlan said. “There’s no reason why you cannot give the public the time they need to look at legislation that affects their lives and the lives of their children.”
Gopal defended the process, saying haste was necessary because new curricula must be in place by September. The public will have more opportunities to comment on the bill, because it still must advance in the Assembly’s education committee, as well as in both full chambers of the Legislature.
Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) echoed critics’ concerns, leading to testy exchanges with Gopal, the bill’s sponsor.
When Doherty complained that some material could be taught across the curriculum and not just in health class, Gopal retorted: “I don’t think they teach sex ed in math.”
The bill did draw a few supporters to testify.
Melanie Schulz of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators applauded its transparency aim.
“I understand what the people are concerned about,” Schulz said of critics. “This bill course-corrects.”
The committee ultimately voted to advance the bill, with Doherty opposing and Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) abstaining.
Reducing period poverty
The committee considered another bill that brought many of the same critics back to the microphone.
That bill, sponsored by Gopal and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), would require schools with students in grades 6 to 12 to provide free menstrual products in all bathrooms. It’s intended to reduce “period poverty.”
Discussion devolved quickly after critics questioned whether the dispensers would also be placed in boys’ bathrooms to accommodate transgender or gender-nonconforming students. Speakers warned boys would stuff tampons up their noses to be funny and stop nosebleeds and use them to clog toilets and sinks.
Doherty called the legislation “the craziest bill I have ever seen.”
“We have an unanswered question about whether this is going to go in the boys’ rooms? Feminine hygiene products?” Doherty said. “There’s a full-fledged assault now on families, people of faith. God made man and woman, that’s it.”
Doherty asked to amend the bill to place products only in girls’ bathrooms, but his motion failed. The committee then advanced the bill, with Doherty and Thompson opposing it. Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) voted to advance the bill, but said she shares critics’ concerns about putting the products in boys’ bathrooms.
After the committee meeting, Gopal told the New Jersey Monitor the bill is intended to help girls without adequate access to menstrual products, but said he and Ruiz would consider critics’ concerns and “try to get clarity before it moves forward.”
On the hubbub surrounding the sex-ed standards, Gopal said critics have not singled out any districts where they believe problematic curriculum has been adopted.
“Unfortunately, I think this has been used as a political football for folks for trying to get voters in November. So I’m not sure what, specifically, the concern is,” he said. “But transparency will only stop all that.”
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