Montclair parents voiced support for the district’s newly implemented sex education curriculum Monday, speaking out against comments made by two Board of Education members and a resident at a meeting earlier this month questioning the curriculum.

At the Sept. 7 board meeting, resident Lorraine Regan asked that the statewide sex education curriculum be put on pause in Montclair schools so that parents can have a chance to review it. Regan did not identify herself as a parent in the district.

A 2020 revision of the state’s comprehensive health and physical education curriculum was implemented in schools this month. 

The new standards expand on lessons about gender identity, sexual orientation, consent and gender expression. By second grade, students will have learned about “the range of ways people express gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior.” 

By fifth grade, students will learn about sexual development and the role of hormones — romantic and sexual feelings, masturbation, mood swings and more. 

Eighth graders will have been taught the difference between oral, anal and vaginal sex and how to “identify factors that are important in deciding whether and when to engage in sexual behaviors.”

Republican lawmakers in the state have opposed the new curriculum, arguing that the standards are not age-appropriate. A New Jersey Education Association ad released in August labeled images of yelling adults “extremists” who “only want to fight and argue to score political points,” sparking renewed debate over the standards, according to reporting by The New York Times. Mayor Sean Spiller is president of the union. 

The curriculum teaches “harmful gender ideology” and shares ideas that “are very destructive to the mental health of children,” Regan said at the Sept. 7 meeting. 

Regan has previously criticized the district at board meetings for its approach to allowing students to explore their gender identity and be recognized by preferred pronouns and a preferred name. 

She also spoke in support of a parent who, at a board meeting last spring, said the Glenfield Middle School’s gender and sexuality alliance led her child to adopt a new gender, new pronouns and a new name. The parent and Regan’s comments sparked an outpouring of support for LGBTQ students and the clubs that support them

After Regan’s comments at the Sept. 7 meeting, board Vice President Priscilla Church asked the board to consider a review of the standards, saying the board has not yet looked at them in depth.

“As a parent and a grandmother, I hear you, exactly what you’re saying, and I feel the same way,” Church said.

Parents do have the opportunity to opt their children out of participating in health class, she said. 

If in reviewing the standards the board decides that the state should revisit the new curriculum, then the members should consider passing a resolution to send that message to the state Board of Education, Church said. This is something that other districts in the state, like Sussex-Wantage, have already done.

“I happen to agree that it’s a little bit more than I would want my grandkids to be exposed to at the ages that they’re talking about,” Church said. “I’m just saying it from that perspective.”

Crystal Hopkins, chair of the board’s curriculum, special education and technology committee, said at the Sept. 7 meeting that her committee would look into the matter. Allison Silverstein and Kathryn Weller-Demming also sit on the committee. 

Hopkins also acknowledged that the board has to be “sensitive to transphobic comments” made at board meetings.  

“We should be very mindful about the things that we comment as we work together to educate our young people,” she said. 

At the board’s Monday meeting, parents voiced concerns about Church’s and Hopkins' responses to Regan’s comments. 

Parent Lani Sommer-Padilla is a clinical social worker who has spent her career working with youth and adults who identify as LGBT, she said.  

“When I heard the comments last week, and especially the response to the comments, it really broke my heart,” Sommer-Padilla said. “I have had clients who have committed suicide because of the lack of support that they were given by their communities, by their families.”

While the comments made by Regan at the Sept. 7 meeting were not the first time sentiments of that nature were voiced at a board meeting, it was the first time someone on the board “insinuated any kind of support of those comments,” Sommer-Padilla said. 

“I am very concerned as to how any families and students who may have been listening may have taken that,” she said. 

As a mental health professional, Sommer-Padilla said it’s important that children “learn the proper terminology for their body parts.”

“It’s important to start having those conversations with our youngest students, in an appropriate way of course, so that they understand what appropriate touch is and isn’t,” she said.

Sommer-Padilla is co-president of the Hillside School PTA but said she was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the PTA. 

Parent Eileen Birmingham asked the board to support the curriculum, citing decades of research that “support the idea that comprehensive sexual education programs can have positive results in the lives of students.”

“Simply put, there is no reason to be ashamed or afraid to say the words vagina, vulva or penis,” Birmingham said. “Programs that transmit shame are not helpful.”

She asked the board members to reject the “harmful language that seems to target transgender or gender-diverse students” that has been voiced at board meetings.

“While I suppose we cannot deny someone the right to say these harmful words, I do hope that all of you would reject the meaning and the intention behind these words,” Birmingham said. 

Church's comments at the Sept. 7 meeting “broadly indicated her agreement” with Regan’s questioning of the standards, “particularly as they relate to content on gender identity and expression and content on sexual anatomy awareness in early grades,” parent Brian Fleischer said at the Sept. 19 meeting. 

“I honestly don't know if the defense of the health standards is necessary for this board, but given that uncertainty, here I go,” Fleischer said, explaining the importance of accurate terminology in developing bodily autonomy and recognizing inappropriate touching.

Fleischer is one of four candidates running for three board seats in the November election

“If the curriculum committee does elect to take up the standards, I'd much rather see an analysis of how faithfully and effectively we're delivering health instruction that meets the standards designed to support and protect our kids,” he said.

“And whether health teachers are receiving the professional development and support they need to deliver those important and age-appropriate lessons.”

Church’s comments came during the board member comment period at the Sept. 7 meeting, which was eliminated later on during that meeting in lieu of board President Latifah Jannah speaking on behalf of all members at future meetings

“If not for board comments, the public may never have learned that there was somebody on the board for the condemnation of the health standards, may never have learned of a potential referral to the curriculum committee and may never have recognized that there might be a need for the public to share comments defending the 2020 standards in question,” Fleischer said.

In a message sent to Montclair Local on Tuesday, Church said her comments had been “misrepresented and distorted.” She is “supportive of the intentions a sexual education curriculum has for helping children develop with the skills for life success they will need but wary of the ages we may be exposing them to it,” she said.

“I did say that families have a responsibility to teach their children, and I would not want my granddaughters exposed to anything we deemed inappropriate for their age,” Church said. “But I never said I do not want them to learn it. I believe parents should have the right to weigh in on this and decide if a topic is appropriate for their child.” 

She said she had asked the board to review the new standards so board members “can be informed and determine the age appropriateness of topics.”

“I stated that it is our responsibility to review things like this so when important issues arise we are informed,” Church said Tuesday. 

The public comments regarding her Sept. 7 statements were “personal and not reflective of what is actually being done in the district.” 

“They have chosen to take the statements of another individual and plant them as my views,” Church said. “I said nothing about gender expression and orientation issues, abstinence only programs, sexual anatomy.”

After Jannah concluded her comments at the Sept. 19 meeting, without a reference to the public comments about the curriculum, Weller-Demming interjected, saying it was “really important” that the board be clear in its position.

“We affirm each of our children in their authentic individuality, and their sexuality is the least of our concerns,” she said. “And we recognize that the speech that has been allowed in our meetings harms children, and it harms them in lasting and meaningful ways, including up to suicidal ideation.”

The board has been clear in its support, Jannah responded. 

“I think that that is something that is reflected in the work that we do, reflected in the work that is done in district,” she said.

The questions raised about the curriculum will be addressed in “the proper form,” in the curriculum committee, she said. 

Later at the meeting, the board approved a first reading of changes to its comprehensive health and physical education policy. Those policy changes demonstrate the board’s position on comprehensive sex education in the district, Silverstein said.

The policy changes included new statutes on the incorporation of age-appropriate instruction relative to consent for physical contact and sexual activity, the inclusion of instruction on mental health, information about the New Jersey Safe Haven Infant Protection Act and infusion of African American accomplishments into the school curricula. 

New language in the policy states that the curricula address “the need for students to gain knowledge and skill in caring for themselves, interacting effectively with others, and analyzing the impacts of choices and consequences.”