By MADDY VITALE
Two resolutions brought before the Ocean City Board of Education critical of the state’s revised sex education curriculum were voted down during a heated meeting Thursday night.
The state-mandated curriculum developed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration in 2020 offers new guidance on how schools should teach sex and gender identity.
Board members Robin Shaffer, Liz Nicoletti and Catherine Panico won election in November following their opposition to the board’s approval last year of state sex education and gender identity standards that they assert are too graphic for schoolchildren. They were part of broader community opposition toward the sex education curriculum.
On Thursday, Shaffer read from a resolution he, Nicoletti and Panico sponsored, called, “protecting our children.”
“Parts of these standards were seen widely as developmentally, socially and emotionally inappropriate for children as young as five based on the gender and sexual education concepts included and social issues that interfere with the rights of parents to teach their children about these sensitive matters and the standards promoted age-inappropriate sexual content which infringes on a parent’s ability to determine whether a child is emotionally and intellectually prepared for instruction in sex education,” the resolution reads.
In a second resolution, Shaffer, Nicoletti and Panico asked that the board rescind its Aug. 24, 2022, approval of the revised standards.
School Board Solicitor Mike Stanton said that in order for the resolution to pass, the board would have to support it with a two-thirds majority vote. Shaffer, Nicoletti and Panico were the only three votes in the affirmative for the resolutions, which failed.
He noted that there was no case law that he could find on the matter, but that the board took an oath to abide by the statutes and if the board refuses to by implementing a change, the public body could be in violation.
“It’s pretty clear that you must implement the statutes, and if you vote against it, you could be brought up on charges,” Stanton said.
(Board of Education meeting video courtesy of Martin Fiedler of Just Right TV Productions)
In addition to angering some school board members, the majority of speakers from the public said they opposed the resolutions and that parents could always opt out their children from the revised standards.
But there were others who said that the resolutions and the three board members who drafted it represented the community’s sentiment.
The August vote was 6-5 in favor of the revised curriculum. The Board of Education voted in support of the curriculum, including three of four incumbents who would later lose in the November election.
Four of the school board members who voted against the revised curriculum last August are currently on the school board: Bill Holmes, Cecilia Gallelli-Keyes, Jacqueline McAlister, and Disston Vanderslice.
Shaffer urged the board to vote for the resolutions.
“The board could clean the slate. We support everyone on the board to nullify the vote,” Shaffer said. “I don’t want to see anyone on the board get targeted politically or otherwise, because it is out there.”
Board member Kevin Barnes, who also won election as a newcomer in November, asked for a “point of order,” directing his remarks to Board of Education President Chris Halliday, cutting off Shaffer’s comments.
Barnes noted that as a father of two daughters, he did not like how the standards were written. However, he said that his personal opinion as a father “must take a backseat.”
“I’d like to think that my girls are blessed,” he said of them having two good parents. “But what about the children who are not so blessed? This curriculum truly serves all children. Regardless, this resolution is confusing, if not flat out wrong.”
When it came time for the public to speak on the standards, a long line of people stood up to passionately make their beliefs known. Several of the speakers included representatives from “We Belong Cape May County,” a nonprofit organization.
The group is made up of parents, students and educators who felt that the LGBTQ community should be supported in the school district, the town and throughout the county and that the revised curriculum helps with the inclusion of all people.
Jakob Pender, 18, of West Cape May, is one of the organizers of “We Belong Cape May County.” He has been outspoken about the need to have the standards to ensure inclusion, since the seven months that they were adopted.
Pender agreed that some of the sex curriculum may be graphic, and he even had to “Google” some of the terms. However, he said, the revised curriculum is needed.
“I think it is appropriate that it is taught the right way in public schools by those who are familiar with these terms, not online,” he said.
Ocean City resident Dave Hayes and his wife, Marie, have been outspoken about being against the new standards.
“The overwhelming majority of Ocean City voters agree with our three new board members and want our school district to follow the courageous example of other New Jersey school districts,” Dave Hayes said. “As other districts have already done, instead of parents having to opt-out of sex education, Ocean City voters want parents to have the right to opt-in.”
A few board members who voted against the revised standards in August said that they did not need a resolution to show their disapproval and that they believe the district and its staff will do right by the students when it comes to teaching the revised curriculum.
Vanderslice said in response to Shaffer’s remarks about the resolutions providing a clean slate, “I don’t feel like my slate needs to be cleaned. We need to concentrate on the students — not the politics.”
Vanderslice, the father of one child with another on the way, added, “I do not need a political statement to protect my kids. I’ll protect them.”
McAlister said the resolutions were politically motivated.
“We need to get back to respectful conversations. I voted against the standards knowing that it was a risk,” McAlister said.
She said there needs to be a middle ground.
“Yes, I object to the standards. Some of it is graphic. I am angry that the conversation was hijacked,” McAlister said. “I object to the language in the standards, but I believe strongly in the district to lead us through this. If you still object, then you should opt your children out of it. To date, there are 11 families who opted out. I don’t want my slate wiped clean.”