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Controversial 'Family-Life' Regulation Gets 5-Year Extension in New Jersey

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The New Jersey Board of Education has voted unanimously to extend for five years its controversial regulation mandating a statewide "family-life" curriculum that includes sex-education courses.

The board's regulation, which was first adopted in 1980 and went into effect in September 1983, was scheduled to expire next month.

The policy requires local districts to develop guidelines for teaching about human sexual development, personal growth, and interpersonal and family relationships. It also requires schools to inform parents about the curriculum and gives them the right to review the course matter. If they object to it, their children may be excused from class.

Opposition to the regulation by a group of parents claiming that it violated their religious rights led, in 1982, to an unsuccessful U.S. Supreme Court challenge. And although the family-life program is currently included in the curricula of all of the state's 616 school districts, there is still some opposition to it.

New Jersey is currently the only state to require sex-education courses in the public schools, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit population-research group. But Maryland officials say they also have mandated such courses since 1969.

Positive Reaction

Despite the remaining pockets of resistance, Joel Bloom, New Jersey's assistant commissioner for general academic education and coordinator of the program, said last week that school districts and communities have, for the most part, reacted positively to the family-life curriculum.

In a 1983 telephone survey of the state's 21 county superintendents, many indicated that response to the curriculum had been favorable enough that they would retain the program, or some parts of it, even if it were no longer a state requirement.

Mr. Bloom attributed the program's success to the fact that it is designed and carried out by local officials.

"The state outlined four areas of instruction and required that there be some coherent sequence curriculum," he said. "But it didn't set the scope of the curriculum, how much instruction would be provided, or what is taught in what grade."

Instead, the decisions actually shaping the curriculum were left to each individual district, a policy that has widened community participation in the program. "It showed a lot of wisdom and foresight," Mr. Bloom said.

Problem of Suit

But support for the family-life curriculum has come slowly and at some cost. When the regulation mandating it was approved in 1980, parents organized as the New Jersey Coalition of Concerned Parents sharply denounced it on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of religious freedom and due process.

Because of the sensitive nature of the issues involved, the parents' group's lawsuit, Smith v. Ricci, was sent directly from the state attorney general to the New Jersey Supreme Court. In May 1982, the court upheld the state board's regulation. It was upheld again on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Parental Opposition

Nonetheless, those involved in the court challenge remain active in their opposition to the program. John Tomicki, the legislative director of the parents' coalition, charged last week that the mandated curriculum "is invading a very sensitive area as far as a child's education, which is primarily the function of the parents."

He also claimed that sex-education, as implemented in the New Jersey program, "is not even biology, which our coalition would support. It is really erotica and behavior modification."

The coalition is backing a bill in the legislature that would overturn the mandate, Mr. Tomicki said. The group has also requested a meeting with Gov. Thomas Kean and Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman, he said, and is analyzing several possible courses of additional legal action.

Excused Students

Mr. Bloom acknowledged such opposition and noted a further question raised by parents: What happens educationally to the children who ask to be exempted from the family-life courses? Parents testifying at recent state-board hearings on the program complained, he said, that students excused from family-life instruction were merely being "dumped" into study halls.

The state education department is investigating that allegation, Mr. Bloom said. Although the regulations governing the family-life curriculum do not provide alternative placements for students excused from the classes, Mr. Bloom said he thinks such students should be engaged in some form of academic activity.

Fewer than 1 percent of all students have asked to be excused from classes, according to the 1982 telephone survey.

Mr. Bloom also said parents have asked him how the federal Hatch regulations, which give parents more control over controversial topics taught in the public schools, would apply to the state's family-life curriculum.

"Our understanding is that it applies to very specific kinds of programs funded by federal dollars," he commented, "and therefore has little or no application to family-life education in New Jersey."

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