Virginia’s school board must adopt a policy by the end of the year to notify parents if any instructional material contains pornography, the latest move in a debate over what should be taught 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 Yankin, who has made expanding parental influence over public education a centerpiece of his campaign. The process will be similar to another state mandate last year that required school boards to pass policies to protect transgender students.
As in 2021, the state Department of Education is developing a final draft of its model policy for consideration by school boards.
Supporters of the bill to force schools to adopt the policies say it is a step towards ensuring parents’ rights in their children’s education. However, some critics believe it is too broad and may limit the ability of schools to use materials that present different viewpoints.
The department’s model policy was posted on the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall website in early July for public comment. In 30 days, 1,750 comments were received. Some expressed support, calling the bill “common sense” and a move to ensure parents have a voice in their children’s education. Others criticized it as censorship.
Senate Bill 656 requires the Department of Education to draft a model policy to guide local school departments in adopting a policy requiring schools to notify parents of any planned use of pornographic instructional materials.
The bill was introduced by Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and supported by Senators 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 backing the bill.
The draft shared on the town hall’s website outlines a sample policy, including the definition of “sexually explicit” in state law, recommending 30 days’ notice to parents or guardians for material used for educational purposes – regardless of format – and how to determine if some Stuff is explicit.
It also states that if, after reviewing the material, parents decide that it is not suitable for their child, alternative instructional materials will be provided.
The “guiding principles” in the model policy are “trust in parents”, “respect parental decisions” and “respect the right of parents to protect the innocence of their children”.
“Today, the Senate advanced a bill that reaffirms parental rights,” Youngkin said in a statement when the bill passed the Senate in February. “From the outset, I have advocated for parents to have a voice and a say in whether alternative reading materials are acceptable to their children, because parents matter. The passage of this bill sends a signal to schools that parents will not be silent.”
Locally, restoring parental rights has been at the forefront of several school board candidates’ campaigns in preparation for the November election. In Chesapeake, a candidate submitted a request to reconsider a graphic novel found in the school library, calling it “pornography.” Virginia Beach School Board member Victoria Manning, as well as parents and citizens, have submitted several requests to reconsider school library books.
However, the National Model Policy does not cover library books.
These policies do look at the Virginia Code definition of “explicitness” as any description of “bestiality, indecent display of nudity, nudity, sexual excitement, sexual activity, or sadomasochism as defined in Sections 18.2-390” or misuse of visual representation, as defined in § 18.2-390, copophilia, urophilia, or fetishism. “
An LGTBQ advocacy group has raised concerns about the definition of “sexuality” in this context, as it includes homosexuality.
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“In effect, SB 656 may be interpreted as defining all references to persons in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual,” the Pride Liberation Project said in a letter to public education director Jillian Balow and other state education officials.
The letter, signed by more than 600 students across the state, including many from Hampton Roads, asked the Department of Education to develop guidelines that “make it clear that teaching about LGBTQIA+ people is not inherently sexual.” The group cited court cases and historical figures related to LGBTQ issues and people, and said the bill could “wipe them out” from the curriculum.
During discussions during the Portsmouth Public Schools Board retreat on Aug. 6, members said the bill was too broad and repeated what the department was already doing.
“I was shocked by this,” said Sarah Hinds, a school board member. “As parents, we’ve always had options to opt out. I’m confused why we had to make a bigger deal.”
Hinds questioned how many of the books used in the high school curriculum would be on the “hot list” under the policies, to which school principal Michael Cromarty responded that it was likely the “largest share”. Depending on the reader, students could be restricted from reading books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and many of Shakespeare’s plays under the policies, he said.
Going forward, local school boards are obliged to receive updated model policies from the Department of Education after the public comment period, and to adopt or develop their own “more comprehensive” policies by January 1.
Kelsey Kendall, email@example.com