At an independent hearing on Tuesday held by the New Jersey State Senate Republicans, state Senators Joe Pennacchio, Schepisi, Testa, and Corrado spoke with concerned parents, educators, and doctors regarding sexual education curriculum in New Jersey’s schools.
Senator Schepisi said that during the COVID-19 shutdowns, two bills had been put forward, largely unnoticed by parents dealing with the other myriad issues connected with taking care of their kids, jobs, and other responsibilities. “One of them was a diversity, equity, and inclusion bill for kindergarten through 12th grade and a separate on sexual education standards that the NJ State Board of Education, in the middle of June of 2020… decided to put forth certain mandates as to what needed to be taught at what ages. A lot of parents were unaware of this and had no idea what it meant, and a lot of our school boards and superintendents were left with little or no guidance from the state about how to implement this.”
Schepisi said that, at the time, there had already been a disconnect between parents and the school districts. “…[The] timing was inappropriate and we needed to focus on the core subjects that our children needed help with. Over the past several months, schools have been trying to figure out how to implement these new standards. There were a lot of missteps and parents were provided with resources that were age inappropriate, videos that talked about topics from pornography to masturbation for children in grammar school. A lot of parents are just wanting transparency and understanding as to what is being taught and what are their options as parents. One of the biggest concerns parents are facing is that somehow, someway parents are the bad guys and schools should supplement and replace parents and that parents should not have rights when it comes to their children’s education.”
Sal Piarulli, a member of the Garwood Board of Education, spoke, but qualified that he was not speaking on behalf of the board. “I was the first to pass the resolution to opt out of the sex ed curriculum and the standards that talk specifically about oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, and gender identity. This stuff should not be taught to little kids. I’m a parent… we’re not co-parenting with the government. Our kids are not learning script in the schools, they took God out of the schools, they’ve changed history, or trying to change history, we saw it with last year with the Columbus statues and the monuments coming down. They snuck this in during the middle of the pandemic and nobody was paying attention because we were fighting to get our kids back in schools and take the masks off their faces. It was tough to get the resolution passed because they are attacking parents now. They’re calling us extremists, racists, I have a local Democrat councilman who is all over social media blasting every parent that showed up saying they don’t want their kids to be taught this. To me, anyone who defends these teachings, who thinks it is appropriate to be taught this stuff, being taught oral, anal sex, and masturbation between the ages of 9-13 by an adult in a classroom setting, that person should not be allowed near children at all.”
Andrew Choffo from the Parisippany Board of Education also said that he did not speak on behalf of the board. After 15 years of service on the board, his plans to step down and retire were changed when the COVID shutdowns, mask policies, and curriculum mandates were introduced. “We are at a crossroads in terms of what public education is going to do for our kids… When you think of the constitutional right to a free and thorough education, where does sex education come into this? Where is the line drawn between a parent’s right to teach morality and public education?”
Choffo took aim at the state’s largest teacher’s union, a political powerhouse in its own right. He said that NJEA dues from the teachers, about $1,300 a year per teacher, are sent to back political candidates who support the NJEA’s ideology. “When parents come to us and ask about the new curriculum, the best we can do in Parsippany is say that we will implement that in a way that supports the norms and morals of our community. But when you have the Secretary of Education saying we will withhold funding for any districts that don’t implement these things, we are looking at losses of millions of dollars of state aid. It forces us to make really difficult decisions.”
One of the benefits which came from the pandemic, Choffo said, was that parents became more attuned to their children’s education and they became more involved with what they were learning. One of the results was an increase in public participation at school board meetings.
Kathy Stanzione, a former teacher, thanked Senator Pennacchio for the opportunity to speak. She retired at the time of the pandemic, describing it as a “nightmare” and the mandates did not help. “I don’t recognize our schools anymore… Second to their health, the most important thing is the education of our children because it’s what helps determine their successes, and most importantly, materials that we teach. Besides our methodologies that we have to focus on, they need to be age appropriate and grade appropriate. Children need to have conceptual development. If they don’t have that, the material is meaningless. When I look over the standards and look at the curriculums, these are not age-appropriate things. Young children in kindergarten and first grade–we’re worried about them making a straight line walking through the hallways, learning to capitalize the first letter of their name, these are the things that we need to focus on, not gender identity. The terms and the definitions are right over their heads.”
Stanzione continued, “These are issues that should be addressed at home. As a teacher myself, I do not feel qualified to even go near these. I’m not saying children do not have issues, they do, they should be addressed, but they should be addressed by trained, certified professionals who know how to deal with these issues. They’re very sensitive in nature, very complex, and it does not belong in the classroom.”
Eric Simkin of Voorhees Township, a parent, said, “Unfortunately, there is a pervasive perception among many parents of schoolchildren that state elected officials are not listening to the public, and that we are being left out of the system, rather than being part of the system.”
Simkin said that he had attended and testified at the Senate Education Committee regarding S 2481, Transparency in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Curriculum Act, sponsored by Senators Vin Gopal and Joseph Lagana. “According to the bill, boards of education are to solicit public input on sex education curriculum, set standards for curriculum delivery and subject areas, and requires boards of education to post curriculum plans online.”
Simkin described a lack of transparency surrounding the bill. “First of all, a copy of the full text of the bill was not available for the public to read before the bill was railroaded through the committee by the committee chair who sponsored the bill. So cogent public input by parents and guardians, which the bill claims to engage and address, really cannot be made in a very productive or meaningful way. Interestingly, all the positive positions taken on behalf of the bill were made by lobbyists representing various well-funded education groups. One lobbyist praised the bill’s transparency aim. How can that even be when the bill’s language itself wasn’t presented before the hearing or heard by the committee? I believe I was one of only a few parents there who testified about the bill… My testimony’s basic point was that the standards are set by the state and that the curriculum review committees on the local level is not true transparency or deliberative since the curriculum must follow the state standards. Senator Michael Doherty tried to ask many questions and tried to voice concerns about the bill. But the committee chair, Senator Gopal, shouted him down. This was not productive, and once again raises issues of transparency.”
Senator Pennacchio said that the curriculum is metastatic and cannot be opted out of and asked if there would be a better way by opting-in rather than opting-out?
Piarulli said that local school boards should produce resolutions saying they will not teach it. “It has to start at the local level and parents have to speak up.” He asserted that the state was extorting the school districts for not teaching their children about inappropriate material. “They think they’re going after the boards of ed, they’re actually going after the teachers… opting-out should be a last resort because nobody is going to put it through. Let’s put that money towards something else, teaching kids math, science, and the right history, not the changed history.”
Piarulli said that he had started a domino effect by putting forward his resolution and that he was feeling blowback as a result. “There is pressure on our board to rescind this resolution because they need to indoctrinate our children with this nonsense.”
Senator Testa, describing himself as a proud product of the public school system, said that the schools, and the NJEA in particular, no longer want parental involvement in their children’s educations. “If these materials were shown to your 8-year-old child by a neighbor, they would be charged with a Megan’s Law offense. Why is it then okay for the schools to adopt this into their curriculum and force it to be taught to your children? It really disheartened me during the budget hearings when the Department of Education said that they didn’t hear any negative commentary in the public portion for comments. I found that to be absolutely laughable. How many people know how to log on to a hearing for the public comment portion for the curriculum that’s going to be adopted in our public schools? When I went to public school, it was encouraged for all of the parents to be involved with their children’s education. Now, this reeks of ‘if taxes are your issue, New Jersey is not for you’,” Testa said, quoting one of Governor Murphy’s most-pilloried phrases during the gubernatorial election race last year. “Well, if your children’s education is your issue, then New Jersey is not for you. It’s mind boggling that this is actually being said by the largest teacher’s union in the state of New Jersey.”
“We have done a complete 180,” Stanzione agreed. “I was PTA president when my children were in middle school and it just so happened they were revising the health curriculum. I was asked as the president to gather parent-volunteers. We met over several occasions, the district provided us with all the materials that they let us review. They asked for our input. What we thought was inappropriate, they took out, and we ended up having a curriculum that everybody was happy with.”
Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician, adolescent medicine doctor, and author, was among the panelists invited to speak. Dr. Meeker generally took the position that schools and medicine try to put a wedge between the children and their parents, and that the parents are the figures children will trust and identify by over others. She also said that children were unable to psychologically comprehend the potentially contradictory messages presented to them on issues such as gender identity. “When you introduce concepts to children as early as kindergarten, or in first and second grade, that are beyond their cognitive capacity to incorporate and assimilate, it does psychological damage, because these are the early years when children are learning to evaluate the world around them… They’re forming an opinion about what life is about and what is and is not reality. In other words, you’re in the second grade. ‘Sam’ walks into the class, he’s got pants on, he looks like a boy, you say ‘there’s a boy’. The teacher comes along and says, ‘No, no, no, you could be wrong’ and the child begins to doubt themselves, they begin to doubt their ability to recognize the world around them and form opinions about what is true and what is not true. So that’s very damaging to a child’s psyche.”
Dr. Meeker echoed Stanzione in saying that teachers are not trained to handle subjects of sexuality and gender identity appropriately. “As far as getting to the eighth grade and talking about oral sex and anal sex, teachers are not taught the medical data.” Dr. Meeker said that engaging in anal or oral sex was high-risk behavior. “The incidence of getting disease through anal sex is at least twice as high as vaginal sex. Teachers are not taught that. Teachers are teaching about a very dangerous high-risk behavior that can have lifelong consequences. Some would argue that sexual activity at eighth, ninth, and tenth grade is as dangerous or more dangerous than smoking cigarettes, because if you smoke a cigarette in the eighth grade, and then you stop in ninth grade, your lungs can recover. If you start having sexual activity in eighth grade, ninth grade, or tenth grade, and you contract HIV, that’s going to affect you for the rest of your life. Teachers are not taught this. So this isn’t just a moral and an ethical issue. It’s a very serious medical issue.”
Since prepubescent students cannot comprehend a sexual framework, Dr. Meeker asserted, teaching gender identity and sexual orientation was past their cognitive ability and presented ethical issues as a result.
Senator Schepisi thanked the individuals who participated in the discussion and encouraged New Jersey parents to monitor the New Jersey legislative website. “There’s a whole host of bills coming down the pike that may or may not ever get heard, that further erode the parent-child relationship. There are bills that take away the parent’s rights if their child at the age of 13 wants to get treatment for mental health. The parents would no longer have access or the ability to communicate with the professional treating your 13 year old child.”
This, Schepisi said, would effectively lower the age of consent to 13, in a medical sense. “These are things that are kind of an interplay with what’s going on in the schools: the attempt to take parents out of the equation, as well as to put forth narratives that parents who are engaged, and those who do have concerns, are somehow a bad actor. I encourage any parent who’s listening to this, whether or not you agree or disagree, to keep engaged and understand. Don’t allow yourself to be silenced, because we need to be able to foster respectful discourse and dialogue on these topics without people feeling fearful to express an opinion