How NJ sex-ed guidelines became national news and a GOP campaign issue

IAN T. SHEARN, CONTRIBUTING WRITER | MAY 11, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

A sex education class for ninth graders

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State Sen. Vin Gopal returned to the State House Monday determined to advance his new law that would bolster parents’ involvement in choosing which courses can be taught in public schools. It’s a volatile issue that has been rapidly gaining traction in many states over the past year and has now made its way to New Jersey.

Gopal’s bill was a reaction to a media firestorm that ignited last month after some parents in Westfield discovered what they thought were disturbing details of new, sex-education guidelines issued by the state Department of Education that must be integrated into classrooms next September.

Some Westfield parents were stunned when they read the new standards, one of which states that the basic concept of gender fluidity be introduced to second graders. Passionate Westfield parents lined up at their school board meetings to object. Local outrage became national news when Fox News pounced on the story last month. Gopal, the Monmouth County Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, stepped into the fracas with his bill to ensure that parents be informed and heard on curriculum changes in their schools, and allowed to pull their children from classes they deem inappropriate.

The resurgent parental rights movement has belonged exclusively to Republican politicians and strategists for decades. It became an even more critical part of the national Republican playbook when the issue exploded in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race, and most recently with a controversial measure signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Lawmakers in at least seven states have introduced such measures, often including provisions allowing parents to stop lessons, suppress books, or sue districts and administrators. U.S. House of Representatives minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has made education a main plank of his party’s plan to reclaim power, with promises to introduce a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

It’s a topic not lost on New Jersey’s Republican lawmakers, who are also pushing their own parental rights agenda. On Monday, they proposed their “Three Rs” plan —  nine bills that would repeal, replace, and restore the state’s controversial new sex-education and diversity curriculum requirements. Democrats control the Senate and Assembly and would need to sign off on any of them.

What Gopal is trying to do

So why is a Democrat backing what seems to be a popular conservative talking point? What started as a worthy debate on educational standards, Gopal said, was hijacked, manipulated and distorted by GOP operatives. The purpose of his bill is simply to strengthen and clarify transparency and public access to the curriculum process, said Gopal, who narrowly won reelection last year in a competitive district.

“Politicians and political consultants … are trying to mislead well-meaning very reasonable parents who want to know what’s in their child’s classroom,” Gopal told NJ Spotlight News. “The state Republican Party is doing a lot of it. They’re doing paid ads and … trying to mislead people and drive up votes.”

In a written response to NJ Spotlight News, Brad Schnure, communications director for the state Senate Republican Office, said “These concerns are being driven first and foremost by parents who were shocked by the explicit and age-inappropriate nature of some of the sample teaching materials they were provided to demonstrate how school districts might teach the new state mandated sex education standards this fall.”

No one is disputing Schnure’s assertion that Westfield parents brought the debate into public view.

But what was a local debate in Westfield was quickly weaponized for political reasons and then refracted through the lens of biased media platforms. Along the way, facts give way to erroneous spin and a debate devolved into a tribal fight.

That was on display during Monday’s committee hearing on Gopal’s bill. Some parents, religious officials and conservative advocates said these sex-education standards are “sexualizing” and “grooming” children.

“There seems to be a concerted effort from the governor, his wife and the Democratic Party to sexually exploit our children and put them in grave danger,” Rev. Gregory Quinlan of the Center for Garden State Families, testified. The new standards, he said, will allow educators “to groom them for sex traffickers.” It’s a talking point often repeated by the far right on social media — a QAnon remnant that claims that pedophilic Democrats are complicit in a plot with LGBTQ people to try to indoctrinate children.

“Sir, you are completely out of line,” Gopal responded.

The bill passed and now heads to the full Senate, but so far no one in the Assembly has sponsored the measure there.

Westfield, where the uproar began

The Westfield uproar began rather quietly on Feb. 22, when Assistant Superintendent Paul Pineiro gave a presentation at a public school board meeting. It included a weblink and a brief discussion of the state’s new sexual-education curriculum standards, which had been adopted and published in June 2020. It  also included a link to a website for the group Advocates for Youth, which offered sample lesson plans for local New Jersey educators to consider. The presentation and links were also posted on the school district website.

Just one resident reacted to the presentation during the public comment portion of the meeting. Measured yet outraged, Emily Barker noted that one of the sample lesson plans, called “Red, Blue and Purple,” included a discussion of “gender, gender identity and gender stereotypes” for first graders. Another lesson plan for second graders, called “Understanding Our Bodies,” proposes the use of Post-it notes to identify body parts: “vulva, clitoris, urethra, vagina, anus and nipples … penis, scrotum, testicles, anus.”

A proposed lesson for fourth graders, called “What is Love,” addresses sexual orientation. A fifth-grade plan, called “Thinking Outside the Gender Box,” addresses “sex assigned at birth, gender identity, cisgender, transgender, gender non-binary and transgender.” Another lesson discusses puberty blockers.

Barker then defined the debate: “These are sensitive subjects that should be left to the parents to decide when their children are mature enough,” she said. “This is not the job of the schools, nor should it be.”

Stressing that guidelines are not mandatory

Westfield Superintendent Ray Gonzales stressed that the guidelines are not mandatory.

“All New Jersey public schools are required to incorporate the 2020 NJ Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education beginning in September 2022. The standards provide the framework, but the district develops the curriculum which outlines the greater details,” Gonzales said in a written statement. “As with any revision to curriculum at any time, our focus remains on ensuring that the revisions are age-appropriate.”

Westfield mother Christine Binder followed Barker to the podium at the meeting, accompanying her 8-year-old son Kyle to address another issue. Each wore a mask that covered their mouths but not their noses. “I wish school could be the way it used to be,” Kyle said in his plea to end the school mask mandate.

Binder repeated her son’s plea: “I hope they are made optional,” she said. It wasn’t her first appearance before the school board to address masks. “We just want to have a dialogue. That’s all we want … We just want to be taken seriously.”

Masks did become optional on March 7, and Binder would then shift her attention to the school curriculum debate and launch it onto a new trajectory.

Schepisi: ‘Today I reviewed all of the model school instruction materials and I truly think New Jersey has lost its damn mind. ’

On the evening of April 5, state Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) was scrolling through her legislative email when she came upon a message from Binder, who had included 15 other state GOP senators.

“I am writing to you as a very concerned NJ parent with a child in elementary school. Quite recently, I have heard and learned about the sex ed curriculum that is being rolled out into our schools this September and I am horrified to say the least,” she wrote and attached links to the standards and proposed lesson plans. Why are talking about sexual orientation or gender roles at all with our children?” Binder wrote to the lawmakers. “These are personal and private issues … that parents should be discussing with our children.”

Not the only grievance

That wasn’t Binder’s only grievance.

“I am equally appalled at the Critical Race Theory that is not only being taught in our schools, but that is also being advertised under another title of (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) which is all part of the same Marxist curriculum,” she wrote. “Why are we making certain races out to be oppressors and others oppressed when we should be teaching our children actual history? … We already know that this is a Democratic push and that the Democrats are sadly all for this, but why aren’t all Republican Senators fighting against this?”

Binder’s email was sent at 3:38 p.m.

After reviewing the links provided in Binder’s email, Schepisi had seen enough. At 8:48 p.m., she posted on Facebook: “Today I reviewed all of the model school instruction materials and I truly think New Jersey has lost its damn mind,” she wrote. “While some of the lessons I agree with, many are just completely overboard with cringy detail and some go so far as unnecessarily sexualizing children further. For me the most outrageous part are teachers are instructed to promote a website Amaze and its YouTube channel to kids as young as 9 for them to get additional information on sex ed. One of the very first videos posted normalizes Porn as “something everyone watches” and “Hey it’s Free!” I encourage all parents to take a look and decide if this is something they deem appropriate for kids this age. … Here is the Video.

“New Jersey is trying to become the most progressive state,” Schepisi told NJ Spotlight News. “You now have parents who are waking up and paying attention.”

Schepisi’s post was quickly picked up by SaveJersey.com, a conservative New Jersey blog, which wrote: “All of these are just a few examples of what’s to come for your kids thanks to these new curriculum standards enacted by the Murphy Democrats. It’s just the tip of a massive, far-Left iceberg. See? Ron DeSantis knew what he was doing in Florida. He wasn’t crying wolf.”

Enter Fox News

The next day, Breitbart put up a report and then the following day Fox News turned Westfield into a national story that would last for days.

The first Fox News story on April 7 appeared online with a factual account of the meeting but quoted only Republican lawmakers and staffers whose spin started turning a policy debate into a political story.

“Based on the overwhelming outreach I have received from parents,” Schepisi said in that story, “Democrats should expect a reckoning this fall.” State Sen Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) was quoted as saying: “Get ready for the army of parents who will not sit by and watch you steal the innocence of our children without a fight.”

The next day former Gov. Chris Christie, who is again positioning himself for a presidential run in 2024, appeared on Fox News radio, saying, “I think this is just a further indication of the crazy liberal policies of my successor, Phil Murphy.” Christie said Murphy “is absolutely beholden to the teachers union.” Christie did not mention that he appointed the majority of the state school board members who adopted the guidelines in 2020.

Inaccuracies started finding their way into the news. Nonmandatory state standards were being reported as a done deal.

“Following reports that the Garden State would be requiring second graders to be taught about gender identity-related topics,” Fox reported, “Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., announced on Friday that he would be introducing the bill … that will require schools to tell parents if their children are being taught about ‘gender identity and sexual orientation.’”

That same day, a story in the New York Post said: “Planned sex education lessons for first-graders in New Jersey will include discussions of gender identity” and “also includes instructions for teachers to tell students that their gender identity is up to them.”

Kean joins the debate

On April 9, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), the favored GOP candidate seeking a seat in the 7th Congressional District, joined the debate with a tweet: “I have always, and will always, fight for parents to have a strong voice in their children’s education. It is just common sense that this curriculum goes too far for young kids.”

On April 10, Fox News prime time commentator Tucker Carlson turned up the heat, saying teachers who discuss gender identity with young students should be “thrashed” by parents.

On April 11, Schepisi added to the mounting misinformation.

“We’re teaching first-graders, kindergartners that if you have a penis it doesn’t mean that you’re a boy, if you have a vagina it doesn’t mean you’re a girl. We’re telling kids as young as fifth grade that if you don’t want to go through puberty, there are a few things called puberty blockers,” she said on Fox News.

Schepisi didn’t respond to an email asking her about that assertion.

Later that day, former Trump aide and New Jersey resident Kelly Ann Conway appeared on Fox, and said parental rights will be the No. 1 issue in the upcoming congressional midterm elections. “Joe Biden and the Democrats are having a hard time keeping their grips on the suburban women that helped get him to the White House, in large part because of the education issue. … Murphy almost lost (in 2021) in New Jersey.”

Murphy hits pause button

On April 13, Murphy to hit the pause button. “I have directed my Department of Education to review the standards and provide further clarification on what age-appropriate guidelines look like for our students.”

That review is still ongoing, but on May 5, acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan spoke at the state Board of Education meeting and stressed that local districts develop their own curriculum from the standards. Beyond making sure the two are aligned, the state has no oversight on specific lesson plans or resources, she said. But she minced no words as to where she stands.

“It is a disservice and actively harmful to deny our students medically accurate and age-appropriate information about their bodies and about the personal and interpersonal relationships that shape childhood, adolescence and young adulthood,” she said — including the youngest grades, where students first learn about gender norms and stereotypes.

Also on April 13, Kean asked his followers on Facebook to “please sign our Official Parents Voice Coalition Petition to tell Governor Murphy: parents deserve a voice in their child’s education!” Such petitions have become a standard campaign strategy aimed at collecting emails for future fund-raising pitches.

On April 14, Breitbart published a story about U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, the Democratic incumbent who could face Kean in November. Its headline: “Exclusive — Watch: Democrat Tom Malinowski Goes on Anti-Parent Tirade, Says Education Concerns Are ‘Made-Up Cultural Bullsh*t.’”

The story included a video of a Malinowski town hall meeting. The story included this from his comments: “Malinowski said there are ‘people acting as though the number one threat to America is transgender girls playing on sports teams,’ referring to the phenomenon of boys identifying as girls competing and winning against girls in sports, as well as the ability for boys to use girls’ restrooms and locker rooms.”

The story was promptly blasted out by the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Kean appeared on Fox News later that day.

Malinowski told NJ Spotlight News that he does not regret his comments. “The only ones who should be ashamed are the politicians who have blatantly lied about the issue,” he said.

He was referring directly to Kean.

“These standards were outrageous,” Kean told Fox. “They would have taught … exposure to pornography as young as second grade.”

That assertion is not in the state standards, nor is it even in the sample lesson plans that were included. Kean did not respond to an email for comment.

“This is national strategy. The Republicans are coming at us with chaos and culture wars,” Malinowski said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-11 02:48:16 -0700