Ramapo program unravels controversies around new sex ed standards

The implementation of the revised Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards section of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards was delayed from 2020 to 2023 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With its implementation in NJ schools comes controversy over whether or not new material is appropriate for students.

In response, Ramapo’s Office of Title IX, Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), Women’s Center & LGBTQ+ Services, Center for Health and Counseling Services and Teacher Education Program hosted “Demystifying Sex Ed: The State of K-12 Health Education in New Jersey” on Friday.

Director of Title IX Kat McGee moderated as five panelists explained the revisions’ significance, dispelled rumors and answered questions. Their professional experiences ranged greatly, but all were drawn to health education in part because of the need for improved sex ed.

Student advocate Louis Waibel started writing for Sex, Etc. — a sex ed resource by teens, for teens — after witnessing the impact of lackluster lessons on his peers at his high school. “We never got a sex education, which we then saw the results of… Many many pregnancy scares, and not being tested for STIs and STDs.”

The revised standards are intended to reduce these issues through comprehensive education. McGee explained how health education standards are organized in “bands” based on grade levels. The standards are updated about every five years.

“You might be aware that there was quite a lot of controversy around these new standards… everything from support to confusion to a highly politicized backlash,” McGee said. The backlash led to NJ’s Department of Education releasing a statement that clarifies and defends the revisions.

McGee summarized the most controversial updates. The band, including students up to second grade, will have educators “discuss how individuals make their own choices about how to express themselves.” Students up to fifth grade will learn differentiations between sexual orientation and gender identity. Students up to eighth grade will learn how to describe reproductive systems, as well as how factors like alcohol can influence consent.

Parents can opt their children out of these lessons, but the panelists believe they are important and age-appropriate.

Professor of psychology and women, gender and sexuality studies Dr. Maya A. Poran said, “The educational space is part and parcel of what young people need to think and know themselves. An absence of this creates an absence in the person and creates obstacles in the person if the information is not there.”

When parents remove their children from this space, they miss the opportunity to learn about their rights related to their bodies.

“Everyone has the right to bodily autonomy,” said OVP Coordinator Marie-Danielle Attis. “A child has the right to say ‘I like getting hugs,’ but there are children who have the right to say ‘I don’t like getting hugs.'”

Division Director for the Sex Education and Training Team at Advocates for Youth Nora Gelperin explained how many schools are turning the standards into take-home lessons for parents to teach on their own time, which weakens their effectiveness. “The policies are great, the standards are lovely, but we have to actually implement them in the classrooms.”

Educators may hesitate to defend the new standards due to the associated rumors. Closter Board of Education member Liz Fanelli recounted how one parent feared teachers would show students pornography, which is untrue.

Gelperin described these rumors as “scare tactics” intended to push parents to vote more conservative.

Much of the pushback involves claims that the standards push an LGBTQ+ agenda.

“I feel the LGBTQ+ has been treated as a scapegoat during this time,” said Waibel. He described how diversifying the curriculum is necessary for ensuring everyone who is sexually active knows how to be safe.

For example, anal sex was added to the list of sex acts high schoolers will be taught. Although “people automatically associate anal sex with the LGBTQ+ community,” Waibel emphasized how heterosexual students also deserve to learn how to practice it safely.

Educating children in a classroom is better than forcing them to seek this information on their own from sources that have not been fact-checked.

“They are swimming in a hypersexualized culture, and we owe them the skills and information to navigate that,” said Gelperin.



Featured photo by Danielle Bongiovanni