The debate over a controversial statewide policy calling for gender identity education for second graders spilled into Brick Township’s school board meeting Thursday night, but officials say the district does not plan to incorporate any type of lesson that is not age-appropriate for small children.
An uproar began several weeks ago after the press reported on a presentation delivered by a North Jersey school board during one of its meetings. The presentation detailed the Westfield, Union County, district’s plans to incorporate a gender studies curriculum that was mandated by a 2020 law passed with little fanfare. But after the Westfield district revealed a sample lesson plan included the topic, “‘You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts.” A tranche of sample lessons under the banner “Purple, Pink and Blue” was the most controversial, and detailed male and female genitalia and some aspects of gender fluidity.
Westfield’s interpretation of the law and its application, at least in the sample lesson, will not mirror Brick’s implementation of the gender education rule when students return to school in September for the 2022-23 school year. Instead, Superintendent Thomas Farrell said, second graders will essentially learn more basic lessons on gender, such as respecting others. Board President Stephanie Wohlrab, as an example, said the lessons might tell students that while it’s often expected that a man will shop at The Home Depot and a woman will shop at the supermarket, the roles can easily be reversed.
Ultimately, officials said they would await further guidelines from the state, as Gov. Phil Murphy has said the curriculum standards would be reviewed.
“Any proposed educational content that is not age-appropriate should be immediately revised by local officials,” Murphy said, following a backlash that resulted from the Westfield board presentation.
The state’s Comprehensive Health and Physical Education curriculum, revised in 2020, comes with a number of “performance expectations,” including one which calls for instruction on “the range of ways people express their gender and how gender role stereotypes may limit behavior.”
While, theoretically, a local school district could use the state’s language to introduce curriculum that could be considered inappropriate or explicit by some parents, the Brick district has the latitude to use its discretion to focus the lessons on respecting others and parsing more benign gender issues.
“I’m being told many of the guidelines are not mandated, as they are recommendations,” said Board of Education President Stephanie Wohlrab, saying the 2020 law contains “generic language on identifying gender roles and treating all people, regardless of gender, with respect.”
“We already do this in Brick Township,” she said. “When I was growing up, my mother called it the Golden Rule. The board sees no need to make changes to our curriculum at this time.”
Wohlrab also called on the state to delay the implementation of the curriculum standards for another year.
“I believe this will allow for better outcomes when everyone is better informed, and we can judge the age-appropriateness on these very sensitive topics,” she said.
Public comment primarily focused on budgetary issues, but a few speakers raised concerns about the Westfield presentation that was reported in the news, and books they had heard were being assigned in classes in various districts. One woman quoted passages from the Bible.
Farrell said he expects revised guidelines from the state Department of Education to eventually be published, but the district will take an in-house look at the standards before students return to school in the fall.
“This summer, a committee of our own health and physical education teachers will review the changes to the standards,” Farrell said. “We will tailor our efforts to best support the education of students in our community.”
Information on the curriculum will be provided through the district’s online “Parent Portal” and it will be discussed at board meetings, he said. Also, “You can opt your child out of any specific family life lessons,” the superintendent said.
One member of the public question the district’s hiring of an “inclusion coach,” given the political connotations that have developed around the word “inclusive” in recent times. But officials said that hiring was unrelated to the curriculum changes, and instead has to do with integrating special education students and general education students in all classes.
If a student’s family opts out of any lesson they may deem inappropriate, the student is provided with alternate assignments, said Susan McNamara, Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation.
“Brick schools participates in what we consider to be best practices, and if a parent chooses not to have their child participate in certain lessons, they can opt out,” said McNamara.
Officials assured parents that Brick’s curriculum will be subject to a local review, and what some districts may present to their students could differ.
“I cannot answer, or explain, why other districts are doing what they’re doing, or what they publish on their websites,” Wohlrab said. “Those resources are not mandated by the state of New Jersey and are not required to be a part of any district’s curriculum.”