By ERIN ROLL
New Jersey doesn’t do a good job of teaching sex education in its schools, according to a health education advocacy group.
Thrive New Jersey, a coalition of health agencies and advocacy groups in the state, gave New Jersey a grade of C, in its recently released report card detailing how sexual health and sexuality are taught in the schools.
New Jersey schools teach sex ed with an over-emphasis on abstinence education, lacks appropriate training for teachers, and teaches curriculum inconsistent from district to district, according to the report card.
In Montclair, the district has been working to revise its own curriculum for the past few years.
“New Jersey has a fraught history with sex education,” said Eva Goldfarb, a professor of public health at Montclair State University with a specialty in sex education and one of the consultants to work with the Montclair public schools on revising their own sexual education curriculum.
On the report card, the state got an A grade in only one area: parental support for comprehensive sex education. The state’s overall laws on requiring sex education in schools also got a B grade. But all other areas on the report card – curricula, time allotted, educator training, content, inclusion and consistency – got a grade of C.
The report found that New Jersey, overall, puts too much emphasis on teaching abstinence and not enough on teaching about contraception. The report also determined that there was not enough consistency among school districts about how different subject areas were taught. Furthremore, the card found that teachers wanted more resources on training, and that many classrooms were still using materials that taught about sex in a stigmatizing or humiliating manner. Subject areas such as LGBTQ issues and consent issues were also not covered sufficiently.
Under New Jersey state law, all sex education programs must stress abstinence, and any discussion of birth control and contraception must include failure rates. Parents must also be given the option to opt their children out of sex education classes if they so wish.
The “stress abstinence” approach used by New Jersey’s curriculum is problematic, Goldbarb said because it’s mainly focused on pregnancy and disease.
“Sexual health is so much broader than that,” she said.
A full discussion of sexual health needs to encompass subjects such as bonding and consent, what constitutes healthy and unhealthy relationships, and gender and sexual identity. “These things get pushed out where the focus is on pregnancy and disease,” she said.
Colleen Daly Martinez, a district parent and health professional, says she has repeatedly reached out to the Montclair school administration, staff and Board of Education to express her disappointment with the quality of Montclair’s sexual education program for the last five years. “Nobody appears to care or want to do anything about it,” she said.
Teachers needd better training and support to teach sex education with a comprehensive approach, Goldfarb said. Those topics need more emphasis in teacher training courses at colleges and universities, she said.
Martinez agreed that schools need to provide more resources and assistance to staff who are teaching sex education.
In 2018, Glenfield parents protested after a group that was booked to speak to students turned out to be from an abstinence-only advocacy organization. The group, First Choice Women’s Resource Center, was eventually canceled.
Montclair’s curriculum is modeled after lesson plans prepared by the organization Advocates for Youth. The organization works with school districts around the country to provide comprehensive, age-appropriate lessons in sex education and family life.
Montclair officially adopted the full Advocates for Youth curriculum in 2019, Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said. The mandatory portions of the curriculum have been in use in the district since 2017, and staff have been receiving professional development on the curriculum since that time. The district added additional lessons from the curriculum at the request of the health and PE teachers, Parker said.
Parker said that staff will receive professional development on teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity issues starting this month.
At the kindergarten level, lessons include discussions on what makes up a family, learning the different parts of the body, and learning the difference between “good” and “bad” touching. At the fourth and fifth grade levels, students start to learn about changes in the body that occur with puberty.
“With any other grade, we wouldn’t start teaching math in eighth grade without teaching addition or subtraction,” Goldfarb said.
Outside of the Montclair schools, other groups have teach about sex and sexuality. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair hosts Our Whole Lives, or OWL for short. The program helps families become more comfortable with speaking with their children and teenagers about sex and sexual health.
The report card resulted in critical remarks from Assemblywoman Valerie Vaineri Huttle.
“As a mother, if my child came home with this report card: earning mostly Cs in 6 out of 8 subjects, there would be no doubt that something is not working,” Huttle said in a statement released by her office.
She continued, “Sex education should be inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations, it should be trauma informed and without question, it should be representative of the medical realities of family planning and sexuality.”