Have You Heard About Virginia Schools’ ‘Sexually Explicit Material’ Guidelines?

By Amie Knowles

August 16, 2022

As the deadline approaches, there’s an updated sexually explicit material policy for Virginia schools on the line. 

The calendar year’s well over halfway through. That means that Virginia school boards have just over four months to adopt a revamped sexually explicit material policy — right in the middle of the school year. Well, once the policies are finalized, that is.

The changes stem from a Republican-led bill that passed the General Assembly and that Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law earlier this year.

Senate Bill (SB) 656 held multiple objectives, including that the Virginia Department of Education develop model policies, that each local school board adopt those policies, and then that parents receive notification of any instructional material including sexually explicit content.

The policies were to include information, guidance, procedures, and standards related to notifying parents, as well as directly identify the specific instructional material and sexually explicit subjects. Parents then had the option to review the 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 had to remain consistent, they could be more comprehensive than the state’s model policies. That meant that there were two options: a school board could adopt the base policies put in place by the Virginia Department of Education or they could expand on those policies, adding their own local spin to them.

The debate surrounding SB 656 didn’t end when Youngkin signed the legislation into law. One of the issues was that there was no definition of what “sexually explicit content” included. Under current Virginia law, the definition for sexual conduct includes “masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact in an act of apparent sexual stimulation or gratification.”

The gray area — whether intentional or unintentional — had some groups speaking out against the lack of clarity, with the ACLU of Virginia expressing that the bill’s “true intent and impact is classroom censorship.”

A press release by the ACLU of Virginia in April noted in part: “‘Sexually explicit’ is a vague and overly broad term that could be used to exclude important reading materials like Beloved by Toni Morrison or Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. The law could allow a scene or a paragraph to be taken out of context and used by some as a reason to label the book ‘sexually explicit,’ without considering the full context or the lessons students can learn. ‘Sexually explicit content,’ as defined in the Virginia code, can include everything from teaching LGBTQ+ history to excluding the discussion of LGBTQ+ families in family life classes.” 

The model guidelines received their first round of updates in July in an 11-page draft document. However, there is currently no agenda item explicitly exploring either sexual orientation or gender identity policies set for the regularly scheduled Aug. 17 Virginia Board of Education meeting. 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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