RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A bill ensuring parents are notified about sexually explicit materials in the classroom advanced out of a key committee with the support of two Democrats on Thursday.
It means a key pillar of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s education agenda will likely have enough votes to pass in the Senate and be signed into law. The House of Delegates is controlled by Republicans and expected to pass the bill.
The legislation from Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) narrowly advanced out of the Senate Education and Health Committee on a vote of 8-7. During that meeting, the same panel killed multiple bills that Youngkin supported on the campaign trail, including those addressing critical race theory, expanding charter schools and weakening policies surrounding the treatment of transgender students.
Dunnavant’s bill directs the Board of Education to create a model policy outlining a process for notifying parents about sexually explicit instructional material. Parents could request an alternative assignment after that.
School boards would be required to adopt policies consistent with the state’s guidelines but they could go further, according to Dunnavant.
“This shall not be construed as requiring or providing for censoring of any books because that would be objectionable and it is not the intent of the bill,” Dunnavant said. “This is the opportunity for parents to have a conversation with their child.”
Despite Dunnavant’s assurances, Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) was quick to echo a common accusation from Democrats on the campaign trail.
“There are first amendment issues all over the place with the idea of banning anything,” Edwards said. “Even though you say that, that’s exactly what it does.”
Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), one of the two Democrats that supported the bill, disagreed that this is a “book banning” bill.
“I know we’re supposed to say the buzz words but this is a parental notification bill so I don’t have a problem with the legislation,” Petersen said.
Some Democrats argued that teachers can decide what’s age appropriate and that schools already allow students to opt out of controversial classroom material.
“There is a process already in place to do that. This is simply another layer, an unnecessary layer, of the government interfering in that process for the public school system,” said Senator Mamie Locke (D-Hampton).
Former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who lost to Youngkin in the 2021 election, vetoed a similar bill in 2016. McAuliffe defended that decision in the second gubernatorial debate with a comment that some believe contributed to his defeat.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said.
Youngkin quickly seized on McAuliffe’s statement to bolster his closing message that “parents matter.” One of his last campaign advertisements featured Laura Murphy, a mother from Fairfax County, whose story was behind the legislative push for parental notification during the McAuliffe administration.
Murphy said she was shocked when she saw what her sons were reading in high school. She made headlines for her concerns with Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a novel that details the traumas of slavery.
“It was jaw dropping. It had graphic descriptions of all sorts of sexual felonies, including bestiality and gang rape,” Murphy said.
Murphy said she never wanted a complete ban on “Beloved” or other literature with sexually explicit content. She doesn’t think lawmakers should go that far either.
“Parents matter and parents want to know what’s going on in their child’s classroom,” Murphy said. “This has nothing to do with banning or censoring. As an attorney, I understand the importance of the First Amendment.”
As introduced, a separate proposal from Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) would’ve allowed parental involvement before the selection of books made available in school libraries and required prior written parental consent before a student could check out what could be considered “grooming materials.” It also would’ve required school boards to adopt policies addressing a procedure for the removal of those materials.
That bill has already been rejected by the Senate and has yet to be considered in the House.
Dunnavant said her bill only addresses instructional material, not what’s available in school libraries.