RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Department of Education is crafting guidelines for how sexually explicit material should be handled in classrooms and when parents should be warned.
The General Assembly passed a law requiring schools to adopt the state’s model policy by Jan. 1, 2023. The guidelines are considered a minimum standard but schools can go further.
Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration is working to finalize those guidelines following a public comment period, which received 1,749 responses.
Under the draft guidelines, sexually explicit instructional material will be identified before the school year starts. Teachers, principals and division staff “should consider student age, maturity and whether a parent may reasonably consider the instructional content harmful to their child.”
Principals must keep and update a list of these materials by grade and by subject on the school’s public website. They also need to provide written notice to parents at least 30 days before the content is taught.
After reviewing the material, parents can choose to opt out and request an an alternative assignment without their student being penalized.
The law targets instructional material but includes library materials that are used for the completion of an assignment or as part of an academic or extracurricular educational program.
The legislation also specifies that it should not be interpreted as “requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”
The purpose of the policy was to streamline parental notification practices statewide but some fear there will still be a patchwork. Stakeholders on both sides raised concerns during the public comment period that the policy is vague, potentially giving schools too much flexibility on what sexually explicit content should and should not include.
The definition cited in the law references bestiality, nudity, sexual excitement, sadomasochistic abuse, coprophilia, urophilia, or fetishism.
The law also references homosexuality under a description of sexual conduct.
That’s a major concern for Pride Liberation Project. The group sent a letter signed by more than 600 current students asking the Department of Education to “develop guidelines that explicitly state that instruction about LGBTQIA+ people is not inherently sexual.”
Rivka Vizcardo-Lichter, co-president of Pride Liberation Project, was among them.
“While this isn’t an outright ban, it’s a deterrent against including people like me in the curriculum and allows unsupportive parents to deny their students access to affirming material,” Vizcardo-Lichter said. “We’re also pushing a harmful stigma that continues to brand queer people as sexually explicit.”
Stephanie, a mother of four who didn’t want to use her last name, said the policy emphasizes parent choice.
“The parents that I talk to absolutely are grateful for this because they feel like they should be able to make that decision for their child,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie said she would be uncomfortable with schools addressing certain topics, including those involving the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m a Christian and we raised our children in Christian home and I feel like that is the guidelines that we would want to discuss those topics with our children. So yeah, that’s a concern,” Stephanie said.
Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for VDOE, did not directly respond when asked if the clarification the students are requesting would be included in the final document.
“Superintendent Balow is in receipt of the letter you referenced and is appreciative of the students’ comments — and of all of the thoughts and opinions shared by students, parents, teachers and other Virginians during the public comment period,” Pyle wrote in an email.
VDOE didn’t make anyone available for an interview on Thursday.
In another letter, the ACLU of Virginia said the policy would burden teachers, suppress free speech and sanitize reality. While the guidelines do not specifically address race, the group raised concerns about novels depicting the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color being targeted disproportionately.
“The vagueness of the standard invites this kind of suppression of disfavored voices,” the ACLU’s letter said. “Denying our children access to diverse viewpoints and experiences will only undermine their potential. Ignorance leads to fear. Fear leads to prejudice, discrimination, and violence.”
Susan T. Muskett with the group Pro-Family Women said in a public comment that teachers and principals will have too much discretion over what should be included on sexually explicit material lists, which could result in parents not being notified about some content.
“Children may still be presented in the classroom with material that does not align with their own family values and/or may not be age appropriate,” Muskett wrote. “The statute and the Model Policies do not require parental notification when sexual orientation or gender identity are taught in the classroom.”