Bayonne school board officials defend curriculum after parent politicking over sexual education

Although parents can opt their child out of the lessons, some don't want it taught at all

Bayonne Board of Education officials have defended the current health curriculum in answer to one parent’s concern over sex education in the public schools, even though parents can choose to exclude their children from the class.

At the August meeting of the board, resident Emad Boles took issue with the implementation of new health curriculum pertaining to sexual education set to be rolled out as part of new standards set by the state, even though there is the choice for parents to opt their children out of the lesson. Boles compared teaching sexual education in schools to committing verbal sexual harassment in workplaces.

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“Everybody was saying talking sexually in the work place considered sexual harassment to the adult, but talking about sexuality to children in kindergarten school is consider[ed] essentially,” Boles said. “Everybody worried about sexual education in the public school.”

Boles alleged many in the community felt like he did. He asked Superintendent of Schools John Niesz and Board of Education President Maria Valado how they are going to teach sexual education in public schools and whether it would be up to the state’s standards.

“On page 38 of the state standard, they said oral, vaginal, and anal sex and also masturbation as well,” Boles said. “What does these things have to do with education? These things should be up to the parents only in the kitchen, between parents and the kids,… at whatever time they feel is right. So you’re meaning you’re going to take all the parents’ right to put it into the public school? This you want to do as a Board of Education to your community and they trust you? They trust you because they elected you guys. So we need to clarify what you’re going to do.”

‘It’s always been in fifth grade’

“He’s talking about our curriculum for health?” Valado asked, looking to administration officials for a response. Boles interrupted: “No, sexual education.”

Dr. Dennis Degnan, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, then clarified that sexual education was part of the health curriculum.

“We talk about personal growth and development, emotional health, community health services and support, movement and skills, physical fitness, nutrition, personal safety, health conditions, diseases, alcohol, tobacco, other drug dependencies, substance disorder and treatment,” Degnan said. “Now there’s 180 days. There will be a conversation about sex, but we do that when the students are mature and that has always been that way.”

According to Degnan, sexual education has always been taught in fifth grade, with the ability for uncomfortable parents to have their children opt out.

“I’ve discussed this with the board, it’s in fifth grade,” Degnan said. “If you’re not comfortable with that, there is a parent statement of conflict or conscious which means… Amy child whose parent or guardian presents to the school principal a signed statement that any part of the instruction of health, family life, or sex ed is in conflict with the conscience or severely held moral religious beliefs shall be excused from that portion of the course where such instruction is being given. No penalties as to credit or graduation shall result. We’ve always let the parents know in fifth grade that we would be having that discussion with your children. We’ve always allowed the opt-out of the course.”

Critics target course even with opt-out

Boles said he was aware of the choice opt-out of the lesson, taking issue with sexual education being taught in public schools in general.

“Fifth grade is early because you teach algebra in eighth grade.. and so you’re going to teach sexual education in the fifth grade?” Boles asked.

Degnan reiterated: “Yes, that’s what standards say… That’s when students are starting to experience changes.”

Boles wanted clarification from Niesz himself, and he also claimed there were more people who allegedly felt like him.

“Everybody worry about it… all the community, especially Bayonne like multiculturally community,” Boles said. “If you want to agree with this, that’s okay. But most of the parents do not agree with it… This is not how the parents want to teach those children about whatever they want to teach. Not whatever public want to teach. It’s hard to teach kids to listen to masturbation… They don’t want to even hear it.

While Boles was disgruntled that he could not persuade the board of his belief that the course was being taught too early, Valado then interjected again to note students can opt out of it.

Letter from Niesz?

Boles asked if it was going to be taught in social studies, to which Valado noted it was only part of the health curriculum. He also asked for a statement from Niesz to community, to which Valado was agreeable. The discussion ended there and the board then adjourned the August 30 meeting.

That same day, Niesz put out a letter to the community alerting parents of changes to the health curriculum that are taking effect this school year pursuant to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards adopted by the New Jersey State board of Education in June of 2020. He reminded parents of the right to opt out of the course pursuant to Section 18A: 35-4-7.

“We have received many questions surrounding the implementation of the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards (CHPE), particularly certain elements of Standard 2.1: Personal and Mental Health,” Niesz wrote. “If you would like to opt out of any part of the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Curriculum you have that right. Please send a letter directly to your school principal.”

In his letter, Niesz also indicated the new standards are guidelines, and do not dictate curriculum. In addition, the files and documents that make up the Bayonne health curriculum have been posted on the district website at bboed.org.

“It is important to understand that the NJSLS-CHPE standards do not dictate that local school districts adopt any specific curriculum,” Niesz said. “Rather, they are intended to provide a blueprint for curriculum development, with local school districts given the freedom to tailor the curriculum based on feedback from the community, including both educators and families. In the spirit of transparency, you can find our CH&PE curriculum documents on our district website.”

Curriculum posted online for transparency 

According to Niesz, the Bayonne Public School District “believes that the strongest curriculum is one reflecting the input and expertise of the entire school community.” Any questions or suggestions regarding the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education curriculum are directed to newly appointed Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Wachera Ragland-Brown at wraglandbrown@bboed.org and Director of Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Thomas Jacobson at tjacobson@bboed.org.

The next Board of Education meeting is on September 20 at 7 p.m. in the Alexander X. O’Connor Auditorium at Bayonne High School at 669 Avenue A. For more information, go to bboed.org.

While this conversation was not traditionally political in nature, that has not been the case elsewhere in the state. The New Jersey Board of Education and Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, have again defended the standards amid criticisms when they became controversial again back in April of this year, although the standards were actually adopted back in June of 2020, and according to Politico, briefly became an issue in the 2020 state gubernatorial race.

The issue remains a topic of discussion in New Jersey as Republicans candidates seek to gain ground in several purple congressional district on the ballot in 2022, per The New York Times, by painting Democrats as pushing a “woke agenda” and “sexualizing children,” according to Politico, to which Democrats are denying the false rhetoric and misinformation being used by the Republicans for political gain.

Democrats defend against Republican misinformation

In April, Murphy painted the attacks as Republicans being purposefully deceitful: “Unfortunately, our learning standards have been intentionally misrepresented by some politicians seeking to divide and score political points. At the same time, we have seen a handful of sample lesson plans being circulated that have not been adopted in our school districts and do not accurately reflect the spirit of the standards. Any proposed educational content that is not age-appropriate should be immediately revised by local officials.”

Murphy continued: “To this end, 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. My Administration is committed to ensuring that all of our students are equipped to lead healthy, productive lives now and in the future.”

While the deep blue Hudson County-based 8th Congressional District is not considered one of those purple districts eyed by Republicans this election cycle, the conversations with school boards on the new sexual education standards and their implications have been happening in the county, political or not, now evident in the not-necessarily-that-blue Bayonne. However, school board officials are standing their ground in the city, as opposed to other governing bodies elsewhere in New Jersey, like the Ocean City City Council, who according to OCNJDaily.com are supporting the movement against the standards. Regardless, it is evident that New Jersey is the latest state that has been caught up in the culture war over what should be taught in schools.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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