Editor's Note: This article has been updated with comment from Princeton Public Schools.
Conservative activist group Project Veritas released secretly recorded footage of two nonprofit staffers who work with the Princeton Public Schools, discussing their nonprofit’s curriculum in schools. The video was posted to the Project Veritas YouTube page on Sept. 13 under the title “HiTOPS Org Sneaks Sexual & LGBTQ+ Curriculum into Schools, Goal to Strip Parental Opt-Out Rights.” In the edited clip, staff members discuss using educational materials pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues into schools without parental consent.
Princeton Middle School works with HiTOPS, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that, according to its website “fosters strong and healthy young people of all identities by providing inclusive and youth-informed sex education and LGBTQ+ support for young people.”
The issue has become another source of tension on how to cover gender and sexual orientation in public schools, a battle that has been fought in school board meetings across the country.
In the video, HiTOPS executive director Lisa Shelby and health educator Hannah Wiers explain that the organization teaches gender and sex education for three days in “Pathways to Racial Literacy” — a required class which Shelby and Wiers noted couldn't be opted out of.
The video’s narrator says, “the covert introduction of sexually explicit content without informing parents may not only be inappropriate but also fundamentally deceptive.”
Shelby, the HiTOPS Executive Director, wrote in a press release: “We are the recognized and trusted expert in New Jersey for youth-focused sex 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.”
The day after the video’s release, the superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, Carol Kelly, sent an email to parents stating that the school district does not condone providing sex education to students without parental consent. Kelly also said that they have had a positive working relationship with HiTOPS for years.
“While we align with the HiTOPS mission to support LGBTQIA+ youth, we strongly disagree with how representatives of the organization allegedly encouraged bypassing parental consent,” Kelly wrote. “I want to be very clear — under no circumstances does Princeton Public Schools condone or employ such strategies.”
In an official statement released on Sept. 15, Lori Perlow, the district’s communications director, released a statement: “This video has raised concerns about circumventing parental consent and undermines the trust that we work so hard to build with all of the families in our community… Although we recognize the excellent work that HiTOPS has done for many years in our community, our primary obligation is to our students and their families. We intend to meet with HiTOPS leadership early next week and our next steps will be guided by the outcome of that conversation.”
In a written statement to The Daily Princetonian, Perlow said that "Under no circumstances does Princeton Public Schools condone or employ such strategies mentioned in the video."
"We have a longstanding partnership with HiTOPS and we are actively working with their leaders to sort through our concerns in order to move forward with transparency and clear expectations for parents and students," she wrote.
Perlow added that "Princeton Public Schools is unwavering in our support for LGBTQIA+ students and will continue to deliver the curriculum related to the LGBT and Disabilities Law (N.J.S.A.18A:35-4.36) and the Diversity and Inclusion Law: (N.J.S.A.18A:35-4.36a)."
At the recent Princeton Board of Education public meeting, the HiTOPS video was discussed.
Debbie Bronfeld, a member of the Princeton Board of Education, shared her reflections on the video.
“To me, it was deceitful … It made me realize that this is not a vendor I want to do business with and certainly do not want them presenting to any of our students.” Bronfeld said. She added, “My top concern is that we must always make sure that all our students know we are here, and that we support them 100 percent and who they are.”
In a letter to the organization’s 11 remaining paid staffers, human resources director Jennifer Kiyak said that it was necessary to put operations on pause in “the interest of preserving the possible future existence of Project Veritas.”
The move comes after Project Veritas ousted founder James O’Keefe in February. Project Veritas sued O’Keefe in May, for breaching his contract by allegedly engaging in “incredibly troubling workplace and financial misconduct.”
Since its release, the video has garnered over 32,000 views and has continued to be a source of controversy in the Princeton School District.
Kyler Zhou is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Julian Hartman-Sigall is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Staff News Writer Abby Leibowitz contributed reporting for this piece.
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.