How will LGBT history be taught in New Jersey’s schools?

Middle and high school students will soon have a new lesson: the contributions of LGBT and disabled individuals in history. Advocates of the law say it’ll create a culture of acceptance.

“Having this LGBT curriculum law, including also talking about people with disabilities, is so vitally important to make sure that we have full representation. That our students can see people from all walks of life,” said Shannon Cuttle.

Cuttle is a nonbinary individual serving on the Maplewood-South Orange School Board.

“This curriculum also ties into other diversity methods that the state of New Jersey has implemented, such as the Amistad curriculum which makes sure that all public schools implement studies on African-American history. But the really stronger point here is making sure that all school districts, regardless of a law, should be implementing inclusive curriculum to mirror the images of their students and families. Again, to teach tolerance, respect and understanding,” said Cuttle.

“It’s important for their straight counterparts to know that LGBT people are in our history lessons,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality.

Advocacy organization Garden State Equality developed LGBT inclusion curriculum for the Black Horse Pike Regional school district. Fuscarino says it can inspire LGBT youth.

“Alan Turing was a computer scientist and he was gay,” he said. “Individuals like Harvey Milk, Sylvia Rivera that were icons in the LGBT community are folks that we can include in the curriculum. But individuals like Bayard Rustin, who’s already being taught in school, who was Martin Luther King Jr’s right hand man, we know for sure that this individual was LGBT, but it’s not being covered in school that he was a gay man.”

But the law has its share of critics. Len Deo, founder and president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, is among them.

“That person made a contribution to society. Good for them. Do we have to extol their sexual orientation or what they did?” asked Deo. “They didn’t accomplish something because of their sexual orientation.”

He says parents, not schools, have the right to determine the moral and religious upbringing of their children.

“It kind of violates their parental right in discussing these sensitive issues with their children at the appropriate time, when they deem it to be appropriate, not when the school does,” Deo said.

The law does allow school districts to develop their own curriculum. That could create some variance in terms of what towns decide to teach, but the Department of Education is working with advocates of the bill to create some model policy guidelines.

A recent GLSEN report showed that students at schools with inclusion curricula are nearly half as likely to experience victimization because of sexual orientation or gender expression.

“New Jersey students have told us that they’re not feeling safe. They’re not feeling respected and included in their schools. The bill’s purpose, and primary purpose, has always been for every student to feel safe and included. Students learn better when that environment is supported by everyone around them,” said Kathryn Dixon, policy coordinator for GLSEN Northern New Jersey.

The curriculum needs to be introduced in the 2020-2021 school year.

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