In Morris, Petition Intensifies Curriculum Debate


It’s becoming easier to be “queer,” but it’s still hard.

That comment was made by a student at a recent meeting of the West Morris Regional High School Board of Education. It was triggered partly by a petition about curriculum, complaints about a recent “Day of Silence” to highlight discrimination and bullying of gay students and more broadly, the nationwide backlash by some against “diverse and inclusionary” education standards.

The district covers the Mendhams, the Chesters (yes, there are two of each) and Washington Township, which most refer to as Long Valley. This is a pretty homogenous place, which makes it an unlikely outpost for the angst engulfing public education throughout the nation.

But there is “stuff” going on here.

The Day of Silence last month prompted supporters to rally outside West Morris Mendham High School. They said there had been complaints about the school publicizing the event. Or as Steve Ryan, the school principal explained at the meeting, some wanted to “silence the Day of Silence.”

Then there was the petition, which among other things, called for removing books that were “not grade level appropriate” and to prevent reevaluating the history curriculum “from the perspective of race.”

One book in particular, “Dear Martin,” tells the story about an Ivy League-bound black student who encounters racial profiling and ends up in handcuffs.

The petition notwithstanding, Ryan said only three parents actually complained about that book and that only one of them had a child who had read it. That drew some laughs from the crowd.

That’s a story in itself.

Since last summer, Republicans and/or conservatives have controlled the narrative about public schools. It is Republicans who have criticized curriculum in regard to sex education and “critical race theory” with some political success. That has continued in recent weeks regarding statewide standards set to take effect this fall. If nothing else, some school boards have been on the defensive.

But not on this night.

Most of the crowd attending the meeting at the district’s West Morris Central High School came to support inclusion and to oppose what some called censorship and bigotry.

“Teaching is not preaching” and “awareness is not advocacy” is how one speaker put it.

Another asked, if students are only exposed to what their parents are comfortable with, what are they really learning?

A letter signed by more than 1,400 people included the following line:

“Some parents are concerned that teaching diverse perspectives encourages students to be ashamed of their privilege. In contrast, we believe that diversity in perspective is needed in our schools to prepare students to enter the world outside of Morris County.”

Support for a diverse curriculum also came via a letter signed by representatives from five local churches.

All on hand didn’t agree. One parent said she didn’t know why her child would be considered “privileged.”

Whether one grows up in a privileged environment can be a subjective judgment. But facts are facts and the West Morris district is, generally speaking, affluent and white.

Popping up in the middle of a lengthy discussion was CD-7 Republican candidate Phil Rizzo, who ran last year for governor. Rizzo said all were “pawns” in a plan to divide us and he asked people to chill out. In truth, the public session was orderly and polite.

Many high school students spoke, including those who said they were gay or transgender. Generally speaking, they praised the district and its teachers for creating a welcoming environment for all. But everything is not wonderful. One transgender student said using the bathroom is something that must be done only when it’s empty.

It’s common for some to complain about being “cancelled,” which in some cases means people are excluded because of their views. To which, one lesbian student said she was “sorry” that happens, but that there have been times when she feared not being “cancelled,” but being “harmed.”

Some dissenters in the crowd said some parents are reluctant to air their gripes about district policies and curriculum because they fear reprisals against themselves or their children.

One presumes that this discussion about what gets taught in school will continue – in the Mendhams and elsewhere. But in the West Morris district, at least, parents from both sides are taking part.

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