ELIZABETH, NJ - Last year, Governor Phillip Murphy signed S1569 into law, requiring public school educators to adopt instructional materials that include contributions of individuals with disabilities and who represent the LBGTQ community. Yesterday, delegates from twelve New Jersey pilot school districts gathered to discuss initiating action plans.

It was no coincidence that the representatives met at Union County College. According to Union County Freeholder Sergio Granados, Union County is the first in the state to create an Office of LGBTQ Affairs. He and other county freeholders welcomed the many teachers, administrators, and Board of Education members to the event put together by Garden State Equality, an advocacy group.

At least one other state and the UK has made the decision to integrate some aspect of instruction regarding LGBTQ contributions into their social studies curriculum. However, Kate Okeson, an art educator, explained that New Jersey has taken a different approach.

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“The mandate covers all subject areas,” shared Okeson. “It’s not just like history in other states.”

Dr. Lori Burns, a principal in the Neptune Township School District, indicated that over 50 districts applied to partake in the pilot program. “Twelve districts within seven counties were selected,” Burns shared. “They all have varying degrees of readiness as far as the curriculum.”

The pilot program starts this month and will run until the end of the school year. It includes instruction to children from grades 5/6, 8, 10, and 12.  The participating schools are:

• Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Asbury Park

• Forrestdale School in Rumson

• Haddon Heights Junior-Senior High School (middle and high school)

• Highland Park School

• Millburn Middle School

• Newark Arts High School

• Pinelands Regional Junior High School in Tuckerton

• Bergen Arts and Science Charter Middle School in Hackensack

• Bergen Arts and Science Charter High School in Hackensack

• Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point

• Unity Charter School in Morristown

In Southern Ocean County, school administrators, teachers, and Board of Education members from Pinelands Regional School District participated in the daylong learning experience.  Pinelands Superintendent of Schools Dr. Melissa McCooley offered some insight into why her district expressed an interest in the pilot program.

"Those of us in administration all grew up in our town," McCooley explained. "We noticed a change in the climate of the school and want to focus on acceptance."

Pinelands Regional Junior High School Principal F. Eric Pschorr echoed McCooley’s sentiments. “We’re seeing an increased number of students identifying themselves as LGBTQ and want to make sure we meet their needs.”

According to proponents of the curriculum changes, the goal is to not only help supply LGBTQ students with role models. The hope is that education will create an atmosphere of understanding and combat bullying.

Presentation Broke into Groups

Although administrators were welcome to sit in on the groups, Celeste Fiore, Esq. led discussions concerning various issues. According to her firm’s website, her practice focuses on family law, school law, special education and anti-bullying work, civil rights litigation, legal assistance for the transgender and non-binary identified community and advancement of LGBTQ rights in general.

Fiore first went over several basic terms, and also shared some of her own personal experiences. This included a discussion on the need for non-gender bathrooms. Fiore, who doesn’t identify with either of the gender rules associated with either sex, said she often becomes frustrated when forced to choose between a bathroom designated for men or women.

According to Fiore, she classified the resistance to creating non-gender bathrooms as a “fear of the unknown.” The problem also extends to locker rooms.

While some fear that non-gender bathrooms and locker rooms could lead to predators entering private areas, some schools have encountered something else. In reality, instead of stairwell encounters, students could also view the space as a place for consensual sex regardless of sexual orientation.

Fiore also provided other information related to the law and dispelled the myth of legal genders. She addressed issues regarding bullying, as well as the names children choose to use while in school. Additionally, Fiore discussed concerns about students playing on sports teams designated for one sex or another.

Fiore spoke on the issue of transgender children in school. “The law is that if a student comes out as trans and wants you to a different name or pronoun,” said Fiore. “You are not allowed to out them to their parents.”

Teacher Discussions

Fifteen writers have contributed to the model curriculum that is available to teachers involved in the pilot program. However, part of yesterday’s presentation was to share ideas. Educators are encouraged to either use the materials, invent new ones, or modify the existing samples.

Notably, there is no final product of the adopted curriculum. It is intended as a trial, and the hope is that teachers will share ideas with one another.

A science teacher shared how students asked why men and women both have nipples. He used this as an opportunity to explain scientific evidence that all humans start off as females. A foreign language educator discussed feminine and masculine nouns in Romance languages. An English teacher spoke about non-fiction and fiction titles that could incorporate the curriculum.

Ultimately, Stockton University plans to collect data associated with surveys and efficacy of lessons. The mixed methods research analyzes and integrates quantitative and qualitative information.

Some Still Fighting Inability to Opt-Out of LGBT Curriculum

As the pilot program starts, some are still fighting for the inability of parents to opt-out their children of the LGBTQ curriculum. Later today, some plan to express their opposition at a meeting held by the New Jersey State Board of Education.

Former Barnegat Mayor Al Cirulli made national news when he blasted his objections to the integration of the curriculum changes.  He is one of the scheduled speakers later this afternoon.

In addition to those speaking against the changes, New Jersey State Board of Education leaders will also hear from others in support of the law that goes into effect in the next school year.

Stephanie A. Faughnan is a local journalist and Director of Writefully Inspired, a professional writing and resume service. Feel free to contact her at sfaughnan@tapinto.net.

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