Controversy Over Sexual Health in New Jersey’s Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health & Physical Education

How to teach students about sexual health has become a controversial topic in recent years, and New Jersey is no exception. As the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE) are debated in the media, it is essential that local school districts understand how the standards may impact their health education curriculum.

Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health & Physical Education

In 2020,the New Jersey State Board of Education (NJDOE) adopted revised Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards, which are one part of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards. The primary focus of the standards consists of the development of concepts and skills that promote and influence healthy behaviors.

According to the NJDOE, the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards were revised to reflect the fact that students are “continually bombarded with physical, mental and social influences that affect not only learning in school,” but also “lifelong health.” The standards address the need for students to gain knowledge and skills in caring for themselves, interact effectively with others, and analyze the impact of choices and consequences.

The NJSLS-CHPE specifically outline what students are expected to learn and address many topics including: personal growth and development; pregnancy and parenting; emotional health; social and sexual health; community health services and support; movement skills and concepts; physical fitness; lifelong fitness; nutrition; personal safety; health conditions, diseases and medicine; alcohol, tobacco and drugs; dependency, substances disorder and treatment.

With regard to social and sexual health, the updated NJSLS-CHPE  address the need for all individuals to feel welcome and included, regardless of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. The standards also outline when New Jersey students should learn about topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity and anatomy.

Gov. Murphy Directing NJDOE to Review NJSLS-CHPE

The NJSLS-CHPE were scheduled to take effect in 2021; however, implementation was delayed until the 2022-2023 school year in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With the new deadline approaching, confusion has developed regarding what exactly is required under the new standards.

On April 13, 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statement in response to growing political debate regarding the NJSLS-CHPE. He also directed the NJDOE to “review the standards and provide further clarification on what age-appropriate guidelines look like for our students.”

In his statement, Gov. Murphy emphasized that the standards were created to ensure that students receive age-appropriate and inclusive health education. “At a time when we must prioritize student mental health and academic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is paramount that our standards also promote inclusivity and respect for every child, including LGBTQ youth,” he stated. “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.”

According to Gov. Murphy, he is open to revising the standards pending review by the NJDOE. If changes are made, they would need to be approved by the state Board of Education. Gov. Murphy also noted that parents may always opt their child out of any health lesson that they would rather discuss in the privacy of their own home. These rights are guaranteed under the Parents Right to Conscience Act (N.J.S.A. 18A:35-4.7).

In addition, the standards do not mandate a specific curriculum for school districts. The local school board retains control over the curriculum, following a review by teachers and school district administrators.

Key Takeaway

It is important to understand that the NJSLS-CHPE standards do not dictate that local school districts adopt any specific curriculum. 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.

If you have legal concerns related to the NJSLS-CHPE or need guidance implementing the new standards into your school district’s curriculum, we encourage you to contact John Geppert or a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Education Law Group.

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