Education Education

School boards must adopt the policies no later than January 1, 2023.

What do you consider “sexually explicit” material? Would you like to know if your children are reading content containing the subject in school? A bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this month calls for such measures. 

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, Senate Bill (SB) 656 requires that the Virginia Department of Education develop model policies, and that each local school board adopt those policies to notify parents of any instructional material that includes sexually explicit content. The policies must include information, guidance, procedures, and standards relating to notifying parents, directly identifying the specific instructional material and sexually explicit subjects, and permitting the parent to review such instructional material and provide, as an alternative, non-explicit instructional material and related academic activities to any student with a parental request. 

The bill also noted that while school board policies have to remain consistent, they may be more comprehensive than the state’s model policies. For clarification, a clause included in the bill summary stated that the provisions of SB 656 didn’t pertain to book censoring in public elementary or secondary schools.

SB 656 received limited bipartisan support at some stages in the lawmaking process from Democrat Sens. J. Chapman Petersen, Lynwood Lewis, Jr., and T. Montgomery “Monty” Mason. However, the vast majority of votes in favor came from Republicans. As it moved through the Senate, all votes against the legislation came from Democrats. One Democrat and one Republican senator, Jeremy McPike and Mark Obenshain respectively, did not vote during the bill’s third reading.

As the bill moved to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, it passed on a strictly partisan basis with 52 Republicans voting for it and 46 Democrats voting against it. Dels. David Bulova and Kelly Convirs-Fowler, both Democrats, did not vote when the bill passed the House. 

If the bill sounds familiar, that’s because it is. When former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was in office in 2016, the Democrat leader vetoed a similar legislation item that would’ve notified parents of sexually explicit instructional materials in schools. At the time, the Daily Press reported that McAuliffe said the bill wasn’t needed for two reasons: one, the state Board of Education was already examining a similar policy, and two, he noted curriculum management should be left to local school boards who were best positioned to make decisions concerning their students. 

In 2016, McAuliffe said of the bill: “This requirement lacks flexibility and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context.”

The following year, the matter came up in the General Assembly again. In March 2017, the National Coalition Against Censorship along with nine other signatories wrote a letter urging McAuliffe to again veto the legislation, calling the bill “constitutionally suspect” and warning that it could “undermine the quality of education in Virginia and place its students at a disadvantage in college admissions.” Once again, McAuliffe vetoed the legislation. 

When it came up again in the General Assembly this year, FCPS Pride took to Twitter with concerns on Feb. 3, calling the legislation “among other things, a No Promo Homo bill.” The group pointed to the Virginia Code’s definition of sexual conduct, which includes homosexuality.

“Does ‘acts of homosexuality’ mean plays by Tennessee Williams? Seriously, this bill can be construed (and will be construed by the current [Virginia Department of Education] leadership) to ban any mention of LGBTQ people. Is this Virginia?” FCPS Pride tweeted.

Now that Youngkin signed SB 656 into law, the state Board of Education has until July 31 to develop the policies. Each local school board must adopt those policies no later than January 1, 2023.