In a recent Westwood Regional School Board meeting, contentious issues including potential changes to the health curriculum, the role of the school board in managing educators, and the handling of divisive topics have sparked heated debate among board members and the public. Transparency issues, such as possible alterations to public participation and a proposal to discontinue live streaming of meetings, also emerged as sources of contention.
Central to the heated discussions was the proposal for a new opt-out process for ‘controversial’ parts of the curriculum, including elements of the health curriculum. Board members Kristen Pedersen, Stacey Price, Laura Cooper, and Superintendent, Dr. Mortimer, were part of an ad hoc committee that had discussed the implementation of the opt-out process through the Genesis portal. The committee also examined alternative instruction planning (AIP) lesson plans. However, the public and some board members questioned the committee’s disapproval of certain aspects of the health curriculum, particularly regarding sexuality and gender identity.
During the public forum, high school senior Amera Beipel confronted the board stating, “My identity isn’t sensitive, it’s who I am. It’s not controversial…I don’t understand why queer and trans students keep having to fight for equality in the school district.” Applause from the audience suggested shared concerns among those present.
Similarly, the proposed changes to the school’s ‘controversial issues policy,’ policy 2240, drew sharp criticism. Kelly O’Connor, a staff member from Washington Township, said, “our new policy eliminates all of the language used by comparable districts in Burton County… Not one [of the 25 districts I’ve been able to look at so far] has any of that language. Not one.” She expressed concerns about the removal of protections for teachers and the lack of clarity on what constitutes a “controversial issue”. The policy can be read to limit teachers from discussing such issues in the classroom.
The late distribution of an addendum detailing the opt-out process for a contentious health curriculum proposed by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJ DOE) created confusion. Some board members felt uncomfortable approving it without sufficient review time. The board’s resolution criticized the NJ DOE’s health curriculum as not ‘age-appropriate’ and demanded more local control. Many in the audeince saw it as another affront to LGBTQ community members.
Throughout the meeting, disagreements among board members were apparent. One board member questioned an alleged shift away from high-achieving students, leading to a loss of academic rigor. Mr. Cusato, however, defended the board’s approach, stating, “Our students spend more time reading and writing and math than they have done in many years past.”
Among other hot-button issues, the proposed elimination of eighth-grade honors classes was critiqued as a possible violation of District Policy 5750 and a denial of fair opportunities. The meeting also saw passionate appeals from high school senior Anaira Deyfel regarding online bullying she had endured and the community’s perceived failure to protect its young people from such abuse.
The meeting concluded without resolution on several matters, including transparency issues such as the board’s proposed discontinuation of meeting live streaming. The discussions and public sentiment exposed during this recent meeting reflect the ongoing struggle between local control, educational standards, and societal values in Westwood’s education system.