Can parents opt-out students from curriculum? Pa. and N.J. school districts are seeing more attempts.

Opt-out forms were distributed in Haddonfield that would exclude children from lessons on gender identity, race or sexuality.

Haddonfield Memorial High School Nov. 15, 2020. Parents in the district were presented with anonymous "alternative opt-out forms" this month, cautioning against the district’s curriculum on sex education, race, gender identity and “social emotional learning.”
Haddonfield Memorial High School Nov. 15, 2020. Parents in the district were presented with anonymous “alternative opt-out forms” this month, cautioning against the district’s curriculum on sex education, race, gender identity and “social emotional learning.”Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Some Haddonfield parents delivering their children to school last week were met with more than the usual morning drop-off line.

Instead, in school parking lots across the district, they were handed unsigned letters, marked “For Parents Only,” cautioning against curriculum on sex education, race, gender identity, and “social emotional learning.”

“Do you know what they’re teaching YOUR children in Haddonfield schools?” read the pamphlets.

The three-page-long anonymous letters included an “alternative opt-out form,” with options to exclude children from discussions on sexual activity of any kind, anything pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community, discussions on racial supremacy and systemic racism, referral to a counselor or medical professional to discuss sexuality, or exposure to “sexuality-related (including LGBTQ+) displays, including but not limited to flags, posters, billboards, wording, etc.”

“We believe that parents — not the government — should decide when THEIR OWN children are ready for discussions of this nature, and how best to approach these discussions,” the pamphlets said, directing parents to an anonymous website, which data show was created in late August.

Later that night, the Haddonfield district issued a response, calling the documents “intentionally misleading and inflammatory” and debunking many of the letters’ claims against the district’s curriculum.

“The ‘opt-out’ form included in today’s handout is not legitimate and will not be usable in our district,”said the response, signed by the superintendent, school board president, and others. “Our teachers and staff support ALL students. They are guided by state standards, but they determine how information is delivered. We believe that the majority of our district families are equally confident that Haddonfield teachers approach all interactions in an age-appropriate and effective manner.”

The leaflets come as districts across the region and country, from Texas to Virginia, are seeing a rise in parents seeking to opt their children in or out of parts of school curriculum or reading, leaving individual districts to grapple with balancing academics and parental involvement.

In Bucks and Montgomery Counties, too, some districts are awareof the existence of similar “opt-out” waivers — although it’s unclear if the forms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are connected — and have policies in place that spell out the rules for parents to follow, administrators have said.

In the Centennial School District, for instance, parents may excuse students from “specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs subject to the terms, conditions, and limitations of applicable law,” said Superintendent Dana T. Bedden.

The North Penn School District has a similar exemption policy, and notes that parents must detail in writing the specific instruction from which their students are to be exempt.

The Bucks County Courier Times first reported that the forms — ordering students be exempt from “any instruction, discussion, or study on human sexuality, race, gender, gender identity, LGBT, equity, or social-emotional learning” — were posted in August on the WokePA website, which has also advocated for restrictions and removal of school library books in the region. The story noted that they resemble forms available through the Liberty Counsel, though it isn’t clear whether the two groups are affiliated. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the Liberty Counsel as a “legal organization advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.”)

Opt-out policies, or the practice of parents requesting their children be removed from certain parts of school instruction, is a long-established process, said Jeffrey Sultanik, a solicitor for multiple Pennsylvania school districts.

But, Sultanik said, narrow lanes carved by state law usually dictate the legality of those requests. For example, in Pennsylvania, opting out of dissecting an animal on the basis of religious grounds, instruction on dating violence, or the collection of students’ private information, are all protected by state law.

But sweeping or vague “opt-out” requests, he said, such as asking that children be removed from any in-school “social-emotional learning” — which includes the development of self-awareness and interpersonal skills — or the discussion of anything pertaining to LGBTQ+ people, are not backed by law. While districts could still theoretically accept those requests, theymay be more difficult for teachers to observe.

“I think it affects a small percentage of the education population,” Sultanik said. “But it is most definitely an increased trend and something that [school districts] have to monitor closely.”

Although neither the Pennsylvania and New Jersey waivers explicitly use the term“parental rights,” the philosophy has risen in popularity and become a focal point in some conservative political spheres.

In New Jersey, as revised sex-education standards that discuss gender identity, puberty and masturbation are being implemented for the first time this school year, the controversial curriculum and “parental rights” have been key talking points leading up to several heated midterm elections.

Advocates have said that teaching age-appropriate sex education throughout children’s schooling can lead to better physical and emotional health for kids, while critics have said the topics should be handled by students’ parents at home.

» READ MORE: New sex ed standards are coming to N.J. schools this fall. Here’s how some districts are preparing.

Like in Pennsylvania, parents have long held the right to have their children excused from sex education classes for moral or religious reasons by presenting a signed statement to the school, with those students completing alternative work. But school officials in South Jersey say it is too early to tell if there will be an influx of parents opting out this year.

Cinnaminson School Superintendent Stephen Cappello said opt-outs in his district “have been minimal,” while elsewhere in South Jersey, Woodbury Heights Superintendent Chris Rodia said his Gloucester County district has not received any requests for them.

The battle over parent oversight in schools was also referenced in Central Bucks School District’s passing of sweeping library book restrictions this summer, as well as curriculum, resource, and library book school board policies being debated in the Pennridge district, which is also in Bucks County.

Many members of the public leave the school board meeting in Doylestown unhappy as the Central Bucks School District passed a vote on a library policy targeting books with "sexualized content."
Many members of the public leave the school board meeting in Doylestown unhappy as the Central Bucks School District passed a vote on a library policy targeting books with “sexualized content.”STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Sultanik said he sees the renewed push around parental rights as an “outflow of the pandemic, education, masking, and other district requirements that arose.”

During the early days of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, he said, parents saw more of their children’s day-to-day education. Combined with frustration around the challenges of online learning, some families began to scrutinize schools more.

» READ MORE: A debate in the Philly suburbs on bringing more students back to classrooms is ‘as political as the presidential election’

“It was a very common statement during the pandemic that, ‘The school district did not have the right to dictate to my children, to my family what we do or how we educate our kids,’” Sultanik said. “I think there is a direct causal connection to what happened during the pandemic to what we are seeing right now, in terms of parental concern.”

That bell cannot easily be unrung, Sultanik said, who predicted that “this issue is not going away.”

“When you send your child to school, the district assumes the role of the parent and the education of the child,” he said. “Individual organizations are no longer taking that at face value.”


Sept. 16, 2022