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Are New Jersey school districts trying to find “imaginative” ways to avoid implementing the state’s mandated Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE)? How far are they willing to go to keep certain health topics from being taught in public school classrooms – and with what consequences legally, ethically and to the safety of students?

That is what the New Jersey Public Education Coalition (NJPEC) and other advocates for public schools have been trying to determine. They intend to ask the New Jersey Department of Education and Commissioner of Education, Angelica Allen-McMillan, Ed.D. to review and issue guidance on the matter. Further, NJPEC is prepared to find and file a “test case” to expedite the discipline of Board members who commit violations with impunity.”

Recent research and observations of local School Districts and Boards of Education by NJPEC volunteers indicate that, yes, numerous districts across NJ are exploring ways to avoid what they consider to be “objectionable elements” of the state’s Health and Physical Education mandate. Notably, and to no one’s surprise, those elements address sexuality and gender.

Some examples of workarounds being considered by local districts are: 1) relegating certain mandated topics to home schooling curriculum for parents to teach; 2) compiling a homework packet for students to complete on their own; 3) teaching sexuality and gender issues out of context on the last day of school; 4) presenting the subject at a school assembly; or 5) just not teaching them at all.

Many districts are also looking at having mandated curriculum taught only to students who opt in (through parental consent). Currently, the curriculum is mandatory unless a student’s parent officially opts them out.

“Maneuvers like these eviscerate the intent and spirit of the mandate,” notes Michael Gottesman, a retired attorney from Wayne NJ and founder of NJPEC. “Ultimately, they jeopardize the safety of school age children.”

The primary objective of the mandate is to help students develop the habits necessary to live healthy, productive lives that positively impact their families, schools and communities.

( Unimpeded, the mandated curriculum could 1) give students the language necessary to report sexual abuse, 2) encourage safe sex practices to prevent pregnancy, 3) provide factual information on vaginal, anal and oral sex and their connection to the transmission of STI/STDs, 4) support each student’s right to say “no” and show them how to set limits and 5) improve understanding of gender identity and gender expression issues.

“Of course, all subject matter is not intended for every age level,” Gottesman points out, “and parents retain the ability to have their child opt out of the program or portions of it.”

By eliminating cherry-picked elements of the curriculum, school districts and BOEs are depriving students of information and tools necessary to “live healthy, productive lives.” In essence, what they don’t know CAN hurt them, jeopardizing their physical health and their beliefs about themselves, sex, gender and relationships. This is most apparent for student members of an at risk LGBTQIA+ community, where suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are already substantially elevated.

( Negative messaging through removal of curriculum content only makes matters worse.

“NJPEC considers these actions a violation of the School Board Code of Ethics, the School Ethic Act (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-21 et seq.), the Board of Education member sworn oath of office, New Jersey education law, in particular, NJSA 18A:35-4.7 and potentially, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq. ” Gottesman explains.

In a recently published opinion, The New Jersey School Ethics Commission (NJSEC) appears to agree, stating, in part: If a Board member votes against the implementation of the mandate or votes to make it opt-in instead of opt-out, this constitutes an ethic violation (Opinion A12-22). However, they require a formal ruling on the violation from the Department of Education before they will consider taking action.

“The subversion of the mandate will continue until that transpires,” Gottesman says. “and that is why our coalition is calling on the Department of Education to immediately put a temporary stop to work-arounds like those delineated here”

The group, along with parents, teachers and public education advocates from throughout NJ, also want the DOE to:

issue actual guidance establishing that these methods of adjusting curriculum are a violation of the “intent and spirit” of the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health & Physical Education.
then ‘fast track’ a test case.

“NJPEC is prepared to find and file such a case to expedite the discipline of Board members who commit violations with impunity,” Gottesman adds.

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