By Kelsey Kendall – The Virginian Pilot
Virginia school boards have until the end of the year to adopt policies to inform parents if any instructional materials contain sexually explicit content, the latest step in the debate over what and how children should be taught.
The mandate is the result of legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year and signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made expanding parents’ influence over public education a centerpiece of his campaign. The process will be similar to another mandate from the state last year — requiring school boards to pass policies that protect transgender students.
As it did in 2021, the state Department of Education is working on a final draft of its model policies for school boards to consider.
Supporters of the bill that mandated schools adopt these policies have said it is a step toward ensuring parental rights in their children’s education. However, some critics argue that it is overbroad and could limit the school’s ability to use materials that present diverse perspectives.
The department’s model policy was posted on the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall website in early July for public feedback. Over a 30-day period, 1,750 comments were received. Some were supportive, calling the bill “common sense” and a move toward ensuring parents have a voice in their children’s education. Others criticized it as censorship.
Senate Bill 656 requires the Department of Education to draft model policies to guide local school divisions in adopting policies that would make it so schools have to notify parents of any sexually explicit instructional materials that are planned to be used.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, introduced the bill and received support from Sens. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, Montgomery Mason, D-Williamsburg, and Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack. In a 20-18 vote, Mason and Lewis were the only Democrats to support the bill.
The draft shared on the town hall website outlines a sample policy including definitions of “sexually explicit” from state law, suggests providing a 30-day notice to parents or guardians of materials used for educational purposes — regardless of format — and how to determine if something is sexually explicit.
It also states that if after reviewing the material, a parent decides that it is inappropriate for their child, alternative instructional materials will be provided.
The “guiding principles” in the model policies are “confidence in parents,” “respect for parent decision-making” and “respect parents’ rights to protect their children’s innocence.”
“Today, the Senate moved forward on a bill that reaffirmed parental rights,” Youngkin said in a statement when the bill passed in the Senate in February. “Since the very beginning, I have advocated to give parents a voice and a say on whether their children can receive alternative reading material because Parents Matter. The passage of this bill signals to schools that parents will not be silenced.”
Locally, restoring parental rights has been at the forefront of several school board candidates’ campaigns as they gear up for the November election. In Chesapeake, a candidate submitted a request for reconsideration for a graphic novel found in a school library, calling it “pornography.” Virginia Beach School Board member Victoria Manning, as well as parents and citizens, have submitted several requests for reconsideration for books in school libraries.
However, the state model policies do not refer to library books.
The policies do look to the Code of Virginia’s definition of “sexually explicit” which is any description or visual representation of “sexual bestiality, a lewd exhibition of nudity, as nudity is defined in § 18.2-390, sexual excitement, sexual conduct or sadomasochistic abuse, as also defined in § 18.2-390, coprophilia, urophilia, or fetishism.”
A LGTBQ advocacy group has raised concerns regarding the definition of “sexual conduct” in this context, as it includes homosexuality.
“In effect, SB 656 can potentially be interpreted to define all references to people in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual,” Pride Liberation Project stated in a letter addressed to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and other state education officials.
The letter was signed by more than 600 students statewide, including many from across Hampton Roads, who request the Department of Education develop guidelines that would “explicitly state that instruction about LGBTQIA+ people is not inherently sexual.” The group cited court cases and figures in history relating to LGBTQ issues and people and say that this bill could potentially “erase” them from the curriculum.
In discussions during a Portsmouth Public School Board retreat Aug. 6, members called the bill overbroad and repetitive of what the division already does.
“I’m floored with this,” School Board Member Sarah Hinds said. “We’ve always had, as a parent, the option to opt out. I’m confused why we have to make it a bigger deal.”
Hinds questioned how many of the books used in the high school curriculum could be on a “hit list” under these policies, and Chief of Schools Officer Michael Cromartie responded that it could be the “lion’s share.” He said under these policies, students could be restricted from reading books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and many of Shakespeare’s plays, depending on who looked at it.
Moving forward, local school boards are obligated to receive the Department of Education’s updated model policies following the public comment period and adopt them or create their own “more comprehensive” policies by Jan. 1.
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Source: American Military News