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Virginia education department crafting policies for sexually explicit content

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Richmond Times-Dispatch Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (center), R-Henrico, shown with Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, sponsored the bill to require schools to alert parents about sexually explicit materials.

RICHMOND — The state Department of Education is finalizing model policies to ensure parents are notified if their children are being taught sexually explicit instructional materials in the classroom.

Wednesday marked the last day for Virginia residents to weigh in on the new policies the department drafted. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill in April — sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico — requiring the education department to develop — and local school boards to adopt — such policies.

According to the VDOE policy, parents will be notified at least 30 days in advance if any instructional materials with sexually explicit content (as defined by the model policy) will be taught in their child’s classroom. At that time, parents will be able to review the materials. On school websites, principals will maintain a current list of sexually explicit instructional materials by grade and subject.

Local school boards have until January to adopt either VDOE’s model policies concerning instructional materials with sexually explicit content, or “more comprehensive policies.”

Youngkin, who has advocated for more parental involvement in the classroom, ran a campaign ad in October that criticized his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for vetoing a similar bill when McAuliffe was governor.

The so-called “Beloved bill”— named after Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved” — that McAuliffe vetoed would have required school districts to notify parents of assignments containing sexually explicit content.

Dunnavant, who sponsored the bill in the most recent legislative session, was not immediately available for comment.

“Policies should be drafted which empower parents to exercise their right to decide whether the use of sexually explicit content in instructional materials is appropriate for their child,” the model policy states.

The online public comment period, which closed midnight Wednesday, garnered roughly 1,500 comments by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The online forum has a mix of comments in support of and against the model policies.

One supportive commenter said the policies “were a common-sense program,” while another supporter wrote, “these model policies are a wake-up call to school boards and teachers to attend to the voices of those who innately care most about the children: their parents.”

An opponent said, “classrooms should be a place where students are free to ask questions, explore new ideas, and learn about diverse viewpoints.”

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Virginia submitted a comment to the town hall and sent a letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow in opposition to the proposed model policies.

“Educators and librarians cannot do their job if they are constantly being required to justify their curricula and instruction to parents who may hold diametrically opposing viewpoints,” the letter states.

“Nor was the public education system put in place to present a homogenized viewpoint. The education of young Virginians will be disrupted by efforts to use classrooms to support a political agenda — a space of control rather than a thriving ground for free speech and freedom of thought.”

The proposed model policies, according to the ACLU of Virginia, will “force” school divisions to adopt anti-free speech practices and deny “students the opportunity to be inspired by stories of people from all walks of life.”

The ACLU of Virginia argues the proposed model policies “will lead to classroom censorship” and “will likely target curriculum by and/or that includes LGBTQ people and Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.”

The Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQ rights advocacy organization, published a letter with more than 600 student signatures calling on the VDOE “to explicitly state that instruction about LGBTQIA+ people is not inherently sexual.”

Failing to do so would “have a chilling effect on our education,” the letter states, adding every student, including LGBTQIA+ students, deserves to be accurately represented in school curriculum.

“Erasing Queer people from our classes would lead to fictionalized and over-simplified instruction, given the immense contributions that LGBTQIA+ people have made to our state and county,” the letter states.

While Susan Muskett, president of Pro-Family Women, a pro-life organization based in Arlington, wrote positively of the model policies in the online town hall, she cited some concerns with the document.

Muskett characterized the policies “as a much-needed tilt toward restoring parental rights and welcomes all efforts toward making parental notification of sexually explicit material a more standardized and open procedure.”

The organization took pause with a sentence that says: “when determining whether instructional materials contain sexually explicit content, teachers, principals, and division staff should consider student age and maturity, and whether a parent might reasonably consider the instructional content harmful to their child.”

Pro-Family Women wrote in the public comment section that including the sentence “would undermine” the law because it would allow school staff “to make subjective assessments as to whether instructional material contains sexually explicit content … impact[ing] whether or not students’ parents are given notice.”

Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for VDOE, said in an email Wednesday the model policies became available at the beginning of July.

“After reviewing public comments, the department will communicate the final document to school divisions to inform the adoption of local policies by January 1, 2023, as required by the legislation,” Pyle wrote.

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