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Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Upper Debates, then Approves Sexual Health Curriculum

Smart

By Sarah Renninger

PETERSBURG – Over 100 people attended the Upper Township Board of Education meeting Sept. 19. With retired citizens, local parents and a number of teachers present, the public expressed a variety of opinions on the implementation of a new health and physical education curriculum.  
The meeting was contentious at times, with teachers supporting the school board, and other citizens hoping for a no vote. It was originally scheduled to be held in the library, but the venue was changed at the last minute to the middle school’s gym to accommodate the crowd. In the end, all but one member of the board voted to approve the new curriculum.
The new Comprehensive Health and Physical Education state standards are mandated as a guide for all public schools in New Jersey. The New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) argues that the topics in these updated standards are of crucial importance to the academic, social, emotional and personal development of students.
Parents and parental rights groups have been attending school board meetings across the county, pleading with board members to vote against the new standards or any curriculum addressing those standards.  
Most concerning to some parents are the standards that address sexual orientation and gender identity. One parent, who asked her name not to be used, told the Herald, “I think some of these standards are inappropriate for young children. And I don’t want my child getting confused over their identity at such a young age.” 
Some of the new expectations address certain vocabulary and specific descriptions that some parents say “over sexualize” the health curriculum.  Many parents–including many at Upper Township’s Sept. 19 meeting–have taken their crusade to “stop the indoctrination of kids” to their local school boards. 

The Leadership Addresses Concerns

Brett Gorman, the attorney for Upper Township’s board of education, spoke first at the Sept. 19 meeting. 
“The board understands there is significant community concern regarding tonight’s meeting. The first thing I want everyone to understand is that the board does not approve state standards.  That is entirely up to the discretion of the state of New Jersey,” said Gorman.  
“Tonight’s vote is to implement changes to the curriculum,” Gorman added. Upper Township voted to accept the standards in October 2021. Gorman said the vote to implement is “in response to many of the concerns raised by you, the members of the public.”
Superintendent Vincent Palmieri reviewed the district’s website and explained that actual lesson plans are now on the website so parents can make an informed decision about whether to opt out of any lesson. 
“We’ve never done this for any other subject or any other grade. You have lesson plans from our teachers, so we’re trying to give you as much information as possible because we understand your concerns,” Palmieri said. “The community gave us some pretty good feedback, and we wanted to make that opt-out process as easy as we can for you, to exercise your parental rights.”

The Public Speaks Out

Parent Jenna Smith was the first of 13 members of the public to comment on the new standards and curriculum. 
Smith thanked the board for their continued support in the implementation of the health and PE standards. 
“By embracing these standards, you established your commitment to all kids. It is the duty of our entire community to foster the learning, safety and self-esteem of all kids, not just one set that makes you comfortable,” Smith said.
Two other speakers agreed with Smith, thanking the board for their continued support of the standards, with one saying that these lessons are going to literally save lives, especially in the LGBTQ community.
Other parents commented that they were concerned that the standards are being pushed by the state, forcing kids to grow up too quickly. They said the standards are inappropriate and asked the board to reject the new standards as a common-sense measure.
 Four fathers spoke against the curriculum. They said that parents should decide what is and isn’t a healthy discussion to have with their children. They said these discussions should be at home, not in the classroom. Much of the crowd cheered after they spoke.
Some parents added that they would like to be more involved with deciding what is being taught in all lessons, across all subjects.
 “We vote, and we know who we will vote for at the next election if you do not reject this curriculum,” said resident Diane Leo.

The Board Votes

All but one school board member, Bill Holmes, voted to implement the updated curriculum.
Holmes explained his vote to the Herald. He clarified that he speaks as an individual and not on behalf of the board. 
“I believe it is the parent’s responsibility to teach their child purity, guide their child through the changing stages of adolescence, and be the lead in their child’s overall health development,” Holmes said. “I stand firm in my belief that parents should be the ones to instill the lessons that the DOE has taken from their hands.”

What’s Next?

NorthJersey.com reported that the DOE has said that “New Jersey Student Learning Standards are mandatory, and failure to comply can result in disciplinary action.”  
Districts could have state school aid withheld or may be labeled “non-compliant” in their state evaluation, a process known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC.
The New Jersey Education Association has created a new “Center for Honesty in Education” on its website. It states in part that, “New Jersey’s public schools must provide a safe and inclusive learning environment for every student, regardless of their sexual identity or preference.  The Health and Physical Education Standards ensure that children learn to welcome one another with compassion and humanity.”
Should parents have the right to decide what gets taught in their local public schools? Do these new standards support the well-being of children, or confuse them?  The debate will continue, but for now, Upper will implement the new curriculum.
Thoughts or information on the standards? Email srenninger@cmcherald.com.

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