Families have been swept up in a fresh wave of anxiety over how the state’s updated sex education standards will be applied in classrooms, starting in September.

School districts have been working to fact-check the actual content that students will learn, after months of a social media firestorm involving the same few lesson plan examples drawn up by an outside group — sometimes mistakenly referred to as “the curriculum.”

Those samples put together by Washington D.C.-based progressive non-profit, Advocates for Youth include a list of male and female genital terms, wrongly circulated as though every second grade classroom in the state would be teaching it, come fall.

In reality, there is no "state curriculum" in New Jersey.

Instead, state education standards are considered by each school district, during the crafting of the year’s lesson plans. Those are signed off on by each respective school board before being used in schools.

At least one Facebook group, strongly opposed to such graphic lessons, has also shot down the idea that every New Jersey school has the same curriculum.

“Team PYC - Protect Your Children - NJ OPEN TEAM” — which has more than 5,000 members — is a self-described “group of people who want to protect the children from the pending LGBT curriculum. We are parents, teachers, school board members, concerned taxpayers, mothers, fathers, church leaders, Christians, people of faith, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Coptic Christians.”

An Aug. 7 post on the group’s Facebook page urges its followers to “verify facts” — that the state learning standards are not the same as curriculum and that the “NJ Department of Education does NOT mandate ANY curriculum to be implemented. It is up to the school.”

One thing that has not changed — public school families can still opt-out of any such sex ed or gender identity lessons for their children, as allowed by the state.

Toms River schools fact check sex ed standards

Toms River held a public meeting on Monday, delivering a presentation on what the actual education standards are and what would and would not be mentioned in school.

The standards are broken down by grade bands of three years, and all of high school together.

For kindergarten through second grade, the township school district has planned to leave any potentially polarizing additions to be “taught at home in a manner that parents feel is appropriate.”

That means no in-class, elementary school students labeling parts of male and female genitalia, despite what some conservative bloggers have touted.

“This standard will continue to be covered by the naming of body parts that can be seen when fully clothed (e.g. head, shoulders, knees and toes)," the online presentation said. "The other body parts will be referred to as private areas, only if a question arises."

“With regard to the portion of the standard that reads “... including the genitals”: That addition to the standard can be taught at home in a manner that parents feel is appropriate for their children," according to township school officials.

Marlboro schools fact check sex ed standards

A Monmouth County school district gave similar fact-checking points on the updated education standards.

“There will be zero discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-2. These topics do not exist in the standards in this grade band,” according to a public presentation given by Marlboro Township public schools first given in April.

Marlboro public schools also said that there would be “no discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades 3-4; these topics will not be present in the grade 3-4 curriculum.

Supporters of the updated school standards have repeatedly said that there has been misinformation spread — by conservative blogs and opinion pieces — to politicize the newer lesson plan models.

Critics of the updated sex ed and gender identity standards have said that they ultimately sexualize children too early.

“The state is obsessed with sex. It’s bizarre and creepy, if it wasn’t so perverted and wicked,” one parent said at the meeting, as quoted by News 12.

Global advocates for coherent sex ed lessons have said that teaching children about their bodies (including medically-accurate names of genitals) is a way to try and thwart pedophiles, giving children the tools to tell trusted adults when they need help.

There are also parents “stuck” in the middle, who might agree with teaching their children accurate information but are hesitant about it being done outside the family, during school.

"Opt-out" still a choice

In both Toms River and Marlboro, school district officials have repeated each household’s right to opt-out of lessons not only covering human anatomy — but during middle school lessons that would include gender identity and sexual orientation.

“Although we encourage families to have their student participate in these essential health topics, we want to acknowledge that Parents/Guardians have the option of excluding their child from any part of instruction in health, family life education, or sex education is in conflict with his or her conscience or sincerely held moral or religious beliefs shall be excused from that portion of the course,” another of the slides in Toms River schools' presentation said.

“Students who are excused will be assigned to a separate classroom for the duration of those identified lessons.”

In recent years, the growing public spotlight on gender identity and sexual orientation have added more layers to potential clashes between science-based approaches and religious beliefs that do not acknowledge those issues in the same way.

“Social and Sexual Health Core Idea Performance Expectations” to be met by the end of eighth grade under the state's standards, "center on defining and differentiating between the terms gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation and explaining what they mean in welcoming and inclusive ways, with a focus of acceptance and respect for all,” the Toms River school district said.

Families can still opt to have their student sit those out, too.

School districts would have been required to post specifics about such sex ed and personal health lessons, under a bill introduced by Sen. Vin Gopal. That measure stalled in the state Legislature, heading into the summer.

“Each (district) must implement curriculum and instruction that address each performance expectation by the end of the specified grade levels. This leaves considerable room for local district discretion, and, critically, for the voices of parents and families,” acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan previously said at a state Board of Education meeting in May.

“It is the responsibility of each local district board of education – through meaningful, ongoing, and direct consultation with families – to select, adopt, and implement curricula that reflect both the New Jersey Student Learning Standards and the priorities and values of the school community,” she continued.

“Further, it is (districts) that develop or select curriculum materials, based on their local curriculum development and review process. The Department does not review, approve, or actively endorse instructional materials,” Allen-McMillan also said— adding districts decide when instructional content gets introduced to students, within the specified grade bands.

Erin Vogt is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at erin.vogt@townsquaremedia.com

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