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New Va. law requires schools alert parents of ‘sexually explicit material’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/11/2022 Hannah Natanson
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Under a new law, Virginia school districts must notify parents whenever instructional materials include sexually explicit content and must provide parents alternative, non-explicit materials if requested.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed the measure into law last week. It requires that the Virginia Department of Education publish model guidelines for the handling of sexually explicit material — including outlining processes by which parents are notified of the material and can opt their children out of receiving it — by July 31.

All of Virginia’s 133 school districts must adopt versions of these guidelines by Jan. 1.

“For the last year, I have advocated to give parents a voice and a say on whether their children can receive alternative reading materials because parents matter,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Notifying parents is common sense.”

Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, was unavailable to comment Monday. A spokesperson said Dunnavant, who works as an obstetrician and gynecologist, was with patients.

Teachers who mention sexuality are ‘grooming’ kids, conservatives say

But LGBTQ advocacy groups are raising the alarm about the measure. In a statement, the organization FCPS Pride said the bill “creates an adversarial relationship between teachers and parents or guardians.”

FCPS Pride, described on the group’s website as an allied and LGBTQ community for Fairfax County Public Schools employees, added, “This law will decrease the richness of our curriculum [and] we are worried that the level of harassment aimed at students, staff and families may go up. Schools could become less safe” for LGBTQ individuals.

The Virginia law comes as Republicans nationwide are pushing a raft of legislation designed to restrict instruction about gender identity and sexuality. Last month, Florida lawmakers passed a bill forbidding educators from offering instruction on those topics to K-3 students; and in Alabama, the Senate last week passed a proposal that prohibits instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” for K-5 students. Republicans in Ohio have also introduced a similar bill.

Meanwhile, conservative efforts to restrict school reading materials are on the rise. A report last week from nonprofit PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression, found that there have been 1,586 book bans in schools over the past nine months — and that 33 percent of the banned books included LGBTQ themes, protagonists or strong secondary characters.

In Virginia, legislators included language in the new law specifying that “this act shall not be construed as requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”

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The Virginia Education Department guidelines, to be released this summer, will include guidance on how districts should go about “ensuring parental notification”; “directly identifying” sexually explicit material; “permitting the parent of any student to review instructional material that includes sexually explicit content”; and providing, “as an alternative, nonexplicit instructional material and related academic activities to any student whose parent so requests.”

The law defines sexually explicit material as descriptions, images or videos of sexual bestiality, lewd nudity, sexual excitement, sexual conduct, sadomasochistic abuse, coprophilia, urophilia or fetishism.

The bill made its way through Virginia’s legislature on almost totally partisan lines. It passed the Virginia House, which is Republican-controlled, with 52 Republicans voting in favor and 46 Democrats voting against.

It more narrowly passed the Senate, where Democrats maintain a narrow majority. Eighteen Republicans and two Democrats — Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (Accomack) and T. Montgomery “Monty” Mason (Williamsburg) — voted in favor, while 18 Democrats voted against. Two legislators, Republican Mark D. Obenshain (Rockingham) and Democrat Jeremy S. McPike (Prince William), abstained from voting.

The bill on sexually explicit materials was originally paired with another proposed law that would have required school districts to develop policies regulating “controversial instructional material” as well as obtain parental permission before allowing students to check out sexually explicit books from school libraries. That measure died in committee.

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