New Jersey governor says state will clarify sex education standards that riled GOP

As the uproar surrounding the state’s new sex education standards intensifies among some parents, Republican lawmakers, and conservative media, Gov. Phil Murphy defended the standards Wednesday but said the state will clarify what children will be learning in public schools starting in the fall.

Murphy blamed the controversy on partisan actors attempting to divide parents. The governor’s announcement came after a parade of GOP legislators blasted the new standards and proposed legislation that would bar any instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation to young students.

“I have directed my Department of Education to review the standards and provide further clarification on what age-appropriate guidelines look like for our students. My administration is committed to ensuring that all of our students are equipped to lead healthy, productive lives now and in the future,” Murphy said in a statement.

The controversy here comes as states nationwide seek to bar discussion of LGBTQ issues in the classroom, sparked by a new Florida law that limits instruction on gender and sexual orientiation.

The new New Jersey standards were adopted by the state Board of Education in June 2020 and are supposed to be implemented starting in September. They expand what students are taught about gender identity, sexual orientation, consent, and gender expression.

Parents are allowed to opt their children out of sex education lessons in New Jersey public schools.

In his statement, Murphy pointed to politicians who are “seeking to divide and score political points” by misrepresenting how far the new standards go. State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) last week shared sample sex education materials on Facebook that she said “go so far as unnecessarily sexualizing children.” Officials say those documents are an example of what schools can use, and are not curriculum. Murphy said the materials Schepisi shared “do not reflect the spirit of the standards.”

Murphy said it’s paramount for public schools to promote inclusivity and respect for all children, including LGBTQ students.

“In New Jersey, parents always have and always will have a say in their child’s education, which includes opting their child out of any health lesson that they would rather discuss in the privacy of their own home,” he said. “Any proposed educational content that is not age-appropriate should be immediately revised by local officials.”

Schepisi said she is happy Murphy will provide more information to parents who are confused about the new standards. But she disputed the charge that she is spreading misinformation, noting the documents she shared can be found on the state Department of Education website.

“Providing information to parents about what’s going on while the state gives a lack of guidance is not misinformation,’ she said. “Parents need to remain engaged and make sure their voices are appropriately heard.”

GOP senators have sent a letter to Murphy and state Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) asking for public hearings on the new standards and delayed implemention. In the letter, they note the expanded guidelines were adopted in June 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

Republicans and some parents have taken issue with the apparently graphic nature of the proposed standards, and the age at which topics like gender identity, sexual orientation, and anatomy may be taught.

State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he’s reviewed the documents at the heart of the controversy and hasn’t found anything that glaringly crosses a line. But he called on Murphy to reassure parents about the new standards.

Gopal called Murphy’s statement Wednesday a “step in the right direction.”

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Legal settlement in works over sham college set up by ICE

Federal immigration authorities have reached a potential settlement with hundreds of foreign nationals who enrolled at the University of Northern New Jersey, a fake university and elaborate scam set up by the federal government to crack down on student visa fraud.

The proposed settlement agreement, which needs final approval from a judge, would settle a class-action lawsuit filed by migrants who say they unknowingly enrolled at the sham university that was created as part of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting, according to court documents.

The government would pay $450,000 in legal fees and not admit to any wrongdoing under the proposed deal.

Plaintiffs who saw their visas overturned after the sting was revealed may have their removal proceedings canceled by the Department of Homeland Security and be allowed to apply for new visas, or seek reinstatement to attend another school, if the deal is approved.

A court hearing is scheduled for May 2 at the U.S. District Court in Newark. An ICE spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The sting operation was revealed in 2016 by then-U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who announced the arrests of nearly two dozen brokers who recruited people to enroll in the fake university beginning in 2013 for the purpose of getting the “students” fraudulent visas. The brokers knew classes didn’t exist.

Most students claim they didn’t know the process to get the F-1 visa — student visas allowing people to complete their studies and travel freely outside the country — was illegal, according to their lawsuit. Still, the government terminated the immigration status of most of the foreign nationals, forcing them to return to their home countries or remain here to fight the immigration charges.

At the time of the arrests, the government said the operation was an attempt to combat visa fraud. A high-profile sham university case in 2011 resulted in more than 1,500 students, largely from India, seeking student visas for the uncredited (and now shuttered) Tri-Valley University without knowing the visas were fraudulent.

Elizabeth Montano, attorney for the New Jersey students, said the enrollees had no idea the visas they obtained were fraudulent. Students who visited the alleged school’s Cranford office spoke with agents disguised as administrators and secretaries.

“It was very hard for them to discover it was fake, because the government went to great lengths to make it seem like an institution,” she said in a phone interview from her office in Florida.

No learning took place at the university, no professors were hired, and no classes offered. The website has been scrubbed, but archived pages show it claimed to offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs in subjects ranging from business to health care management, and was advertised as an accredited school by the New Jersey Department of Education.

According to the lawsuit, the school even maintained a social media account, posting when it was closed for inclement weather or sharing wedding photos after two “alumni” were married. Government agents even made shirts for UNNJ “students.”

“The only thing lacking appears to be a reference to UNNJ’s men’s or women’s basketball team in the Final Four,” a judge wrote in a 2019 opinion.

ICE shut down the school in 2016 after the academic brokers were arrested for fraud, and immediately terminated all related student F-1 visas based on “fraudulent enrollment” at UNNJ, the suit states.

The plaintiffs say they were effectively collateral damage, and at one point federal prosecutors admitted the plaintiffs were victims of fraud.

Most of the 1,076 foreign nationals voluntarily left the country to avoid immigration proceedings or are currently awaiting hearings for an order of removal, Montano said. The fraudulent enrollment at UNNJ is a stain on their record, keeping them from applying to other U.S. schools or forcing them out of the country they worked hard to come to, she said.

The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs’ due process rights were violated and says ICE improperly disregarded the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires federal agencies to provide legitimate reasons for their actions, in this case the overturning of their visas.

The case, first filed in Nov. 2016, was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in New Jersey in 2017. Montano appealed to the Third Circuit, which overturned the dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings in August 2019.

Montano said while the government refuses to accept any liability for the troubles it’s caused to more than a thousand migrants, the potential of a settlement is a “beacon of hope that there are people out there who will fight for immigrants who have been wrongly harmed.”

She said the government did not provide a list of how many foreign nationals remain in the country or returned to their home nation, or how many reside in New Jersey. She said of the 100 people she’s been in contact with for the settlement, many live in or close to the Garden State.

This is the second known fake university set up by the U.S. government in an attempt to catch visa fraud. Authorities revealed in 2019 the University of Farmington in Michigan was also a sham operation, which led to the arrests of 161 students and the deportation of 600 people.

“It all boils down to, the government thinks what they’re doing is fine — and we don’t agree with them — but they believe they have the power to keep doing this. It’s awful,” Montano said. “The settlement, at least, goes to show the government can’t get away with doing this.”

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Dem leader slams ‘desperate’ New Jersey Republicans for vaccine protest that delayed voting

New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin criticized his Republican colleagues for their “desperate efforts to delay important legislation” after a Monday voting session that lasted for about 11 hours.

Several GOP lawmakers stretched the last voting day of 2021 into a marathon over their objections to a policy that requires them to show proof of vaccination or a clean COVID test to enter the Statehouse. Coughlin (D-Middlesex) in a statement called the policy “fair and sensible,” and noted COVID cases are rising in New Jersey and the region.

The lengthy day came in part because remote voting takes longer than in-person voting, and about 20 lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — voted remotely. But a handful of Republican Assembly members also stalled voting on many bills by making long-winded comments, asking seemingly pointless questions, complaining they couldn’t hear, or saying they had technological difficulties during their calls into the session.

Throughout the day, Coughlin became weary of the Republican lawmakers’ tactics. Their attempts to filibuster the proceedings included talking about different types of corn, recalling beach days, discussing their children’s opinion on school security drills, and reading directly from the text of bills.

“You guys are running out of things to say,” Coughlin said at one point.

As Coughlin sought to speed up the voting process, he began to quickly open and close the option for lawmakers to comment on bills. When Republicans shouted at Coughlin that they weren’t being given the chance to speak, Coughlin told them they should have asked sooner.

Throughout the 11-hour session, technical difficulties existed on both ends. The clerk couldn’t hear votes being cast, lawmakers were speaking over each other, and some apparently couldn’t figure out how to put themselves on mute.

As the night dragged on, more and more lawmakers left the building and joined the session over the phone, adding to the delays. The session, which began at about 1:20 p.m., ended just after midnight.

Assembly sessions typically don’t last longer than a few hours, depending on how many bills are scheduled. Lawmakers ultimately acted on more than 100 bills Monday.

In the state Senate, which started its session nearly two hours late, voting concluded by 5 p.m. Republican senators all showed their vaccine cards or negative test results without issue, though during the session some said legislative leaders should consider natural immunity.

Coughlin applauded Assembly members who showed up to vote and complied with Statehouse vaccine rules “with respect for their colleagues, staff, and the public.” When a group of Republicans entered the building without complying with the vaccine policy during the last voting session, Coughlin criticized them for putting the health of their colleagues and their families at risk.

Confirmed COVID cases in New Jersey have topped 1.1 million since the pandemic started, with 28,730 COVID-associated deaths, according to state data.

“Despite the desperate efforts of several members of the minority party to delay important legislation, we succeeded in passing major mental health legislation for our students, took steps on gun safety, honored our service members and veterans, furthered our support for economic development in Atlantic City, and kept commitments to safeguard our natural resources,” Coughlin said.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.