The Virginia Board of Education has gutted a controversial measure allowing Virginia parents to be notified and opt their children out of classroom material deemed “sexually explicit.”
The death of the proposal Thursday came after more than two hours of debate among board members who eventually agreed that parents have a right to know what their child is learning and reading, but also that defining “sexually explicit” isn’t a matter for a state board.
“We are addressing this by saying we are not going to address the sexually explicit issue in the classroom and we are going to rely on local policy to deal with those issues,” board member Daniel Gecker said.
Essentially the regulatory twin of the “Beloved” bill vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the measure pit free-speech groups and many teachers against some parents who say the notification is simply common sense. Opponents said the bill would lead to a slippery slope of suppression.
“Sadly, unfiltered sexually explicit messages bombard our kids every day. We’ve all got one of these,” Charles Miller, a Virginia educator for 40 years, said Thursday as he held up his cellphone. “And ironically, these regulations seek to reduce some of the greatest works of literature to nothing more than one of those messages.”
Objections to some scenes in “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s post-Civil War and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, gave the vetoed bill its moniker. In his veto message last year, McAuliffe mentioned that the Virginia Department of Education was already looking at similar regulation.
The most recent language expanded the reach of previous proposals, requiring teachers to both notify parents of “sexually explicit” material at the beginning of the year and throughout the school year if any more such material is added. It also directed school boards to have clear procedures for providing alternative assignments for students whose parents request it.
It would have been up to local school boards to define “sexually explicit,” a main difference between the “Beloved” bill and the regulation change.
Laura Murphy, who launched the “Beloved” bill effort last year, spoke in favor of the proposed changes Thursday. The mother of a Fairfax teen was shocked when she learned her high school senior was assigned the novel in his Advanced Placement English class.
“I feel embarrassed that the people in your school system didn’t handle it better. But that doesn’t mean that we need to change state policies to solve the problem,” board member Elizabeth Lodal told Murphy on Thursday, emphasizing the need of local school districts to nurture conversations with parents.
Five members voted to keep their current language intact Thursday, while two voted against that. The majority of members even backed away from language requiring the advance notice. Some said that it should be up to local school boards to decide how and what kind of notice should be given. An existing policy, though, does dictate that all schools provide parents with syllabi.
“We are so lucky to live in the 21st century ... where it is very easy to find out information, and I think we should act like it,” Lodal said of parents’ ability to investigate what their child is reading. “You can’t zoom in as a parent and solve all of your children’s problems.”
Lodal also pointed out that state regulations already allow parents to request a review of any instructional materials. Existing rules also require local school boards to lay out the basis on which someone can request reconsideration of materials considered “sensitive or controversial,” which Lodal and some other board members felt was sufficient.
The board’s vote once again brings to close an issue the board has debated since 2013, when they considered similar ideas that were later dropped. But the issue may not be dead yet: Some board members mentioned Thursday that a bill currently under consideration by state legislators also emphasizes local control of the issue.
According to a 2013 survey of school divisions conducted by Virginia Department of Education staff, 74 percent of 108 districts and five professional organizations had policies allowing students to be excused from instruction related to sensitive or controversial materials.
Forty-eight percent of those respondents required that parents receive advance notice before potentially sensitive or controversial materials are used in the classroom.
Since October, the majority of the 171 comments received by the board expressed opposition to the proposal.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and a host of free-speech groups have said the term “sexually explicit” is vague and potentially prejudicial. In a letter to the board, the groups wrote that it could be used to describe classic works of literature such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Brave New World,” and that such “red-flagging” of books could lead to a “regime of labeling that will leave few books unaffected.”
Of the 171 comments received by the board, teachers were among the main opponents to the proposal while parents favored it in greater numbers.
“You build trust with parents by listening,” Board President Billy K. Cannaday Jr. said. “I was really troubled by the fact that they couldn’t solve it at the local level.”
The debate comes not long after similar ones in Chesterfield and Accomack counties.
After a controversy sparked by parents’ concerns over some books listed on the school system’s summer reading list, Chesterfield schools Superintendent James Lane said in September that the challenged books would remain on shelves but the criteria for selecting library books would be reviewed.
He also said future summer reading lists simply would share lists of nationally recognized books, and schools that assign a particular book for the summer should have an alternative assignment available for students who express concern.
Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, has supported the vetoed “Beloved” bill and backed the proposed Department of Education amendments.
“In Chesterfield, there are core values of honesty and responsibility, and these books, many of them, are controversial and violate the very principles that we try to espouse,” she said recently on her radio show.
Accomack’s school district leaders faced backlash after they temporarily pulled “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from bookshelves after some parents expressed concerns over racial slurs in the classic novels. The district recently formed a committee to re-examine how to handle such complaints.
The minor housekeeping changes the board did make to the policy Thursday will now head across the street to the executive branch for multiple reviews.