Princeton school district officials are reconsidering the district’s relationship with HiTOPS, the nonprofit group that focuses on youth-centered sex education and support, in the wake of a Project Veritas online video.
The school board will convene a board committee to discuss the district’s relationship with HiTOPS and also meet with HiTOPS leadership, Superintendent of Schools Carol Kelley said. The district’s next steps will be guided by the outcome of that conversation.
School district officials learned of a “concerning” video that focuses on alleged questionable engagement strategies used by HiTOPS to reach middle school students and bypass parents, Kelley wrote in a Sept. 14 email to school district families and staff.
The Project Veritas video alleged that HiTOPS circumvents parental permission by incorporating lesson plans into courses that do not allow for parents to “opt-out” their children.
Kelley wrote that while the school district aligns with HiTOPS’ mission to provide general sex education as well as support for LGBTQIA+ youth, it strongly disagrees with how its representatives allegedly encouraged bypassing parental consent for some of the lessons taught by HiTOPS educators.
“In the video that Project Veritas published, it implied that Princeton Public Schools advocates for this work to happen without parental knowledge or consent,” Kelley wrote.
“I want to be very clear. Under no circumstances does Princeton Public Schools condone or employ such strategies. We will continue to comply with all mandates and provide opt-outs where appropriate,” she wrote.
The school district’s long-term partnership with HiTOPS is intended to affirm the students and also to fulfill the state’s LGBTQ disabilities law and the state’s diversity and inclusion law, she wrote.
In Project Veritas’ edited, undercover video with HiTOPS Executive Director Lisa Shelby and health educator Hannah Wiers, the duo said parents can “opt-out” their children from a health class, but not from the school district’s Pathways to Racial Literacy classes.
The Pathways to Racial Literacy course description for sixth-grade students encourages “conversations about race, racism and other forms of discrimination that are personal and vulnerable,” according to the Princeton Public Schools website at www.princetonk12.org.
The course touches on several “pathways,” including the Identity Pathway – which is how HiTOPS reaches students.
The Identity Pathway helps students to develop their own identities, discover others’ identities without judgment and encourages students to embrace not only their own individuality, but those of their peers as well, according to the school district website.
“Our identity consists of the various characteristics that we use to categorize and define ourselves, and the various characteristics that are constructed by those around us,” the course description states.
Under “Related Vocabulary,” the terms that may be discussed in the course include birth-assigned sex, gender, gender pronouns, gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronoun, gender-nonconforming, gender identity, LGBTQIA+, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and heterosexual.
Other terms under “Related Vocabulary” also include identity, ethnicity, race, class, religion, family size and composition, languages, education, cisgender or cis, and sexual orientation.
Kelley wrote that in general, the school district provides opportunities for parents or guardians to ask questions about lessons or to opt-out the child from lessons. The elementary schools have hosted information nights to discuss programming.
“For our middle school programming, communication was shared with all parents and guardians about the three lessons students would receive – an introduction to sexual orientation and gender identity, unconscious biases, gender roles/stereotypes and LGBTQIA+ history,” Kelley wrote.
In a statement released Sept. 15, Kelley reaffirmed that the school district is committed to supporting LGBTQIA+ students and will continue to deliver these critical lessons to the students.
In response to the video, HiTOPS blasted Project Veritas and claimed that it was “targeted by an ultra-right wing, conservative known hate group that uses deceptive, unethical practices to spread misinformation,” in a statement released Sept. 15.
Project Veritas, in its mission statement, said that it is a nonprofit group whose journalists expose corruption in government, media, big tech, politics, education and beyond through undercover videos.
Shelby, HiTOPS executive director, said HiTOPS is a recognized and trusted expert in New Jersey for youth-focused education and support.
“That is exactly why this hate group misrepresented themselves to us, secretly filmed two lengthy conversations, and manipulated our words to vilify our organization and discredit our work and the delivery of sex education in our state,” Shelby said.
HiTOPS works to empower all young people through sex education, LGBTQ+ support and creating environments that affirm youth of all gender identities and sexual orientations, it said in the statement. It also values family involvement.
“Our goal is for all young people to have access to developmentally appropriate, positive and medically accurate sex education, to have essential social supports and to live, work and play in affirming communities,” according to the statement.
HiTOPS collaborates with educators to develop and facilitate lessons that fulfill the diversity and inclusion instruction mandate and meet New Jersey sex education standards, said Stacy Robustelli, HiTOPS director of education.
Mandated concepts such as acceptance and inclusion may be taught in a variety of classes, but sex education content such as anatomy and human reproduction are only taught in classes that offer the parents the ability to opt-out their child, Robustelli said.
HiTOPS teaches in the classrooms where districts place them, and parents are always informed prior to any instruction, she said.
“The goal of Project Veritas is to wreak havoc and stoke fear and hatred. They target HiTOPS and other organizations to keep us from fulfilling our mission,” Shelby said.
“HiTOPS will not be intimidated or back down from our commitment to youth and their families. We stand by our mission and young people – always,” Shelby said.