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Virginia schools must now notify parents in advance if classroom content is deemed “sexually explicit.” 

Parents and guardians across the commonwealth are gearing up to receive a new set of notifications. As of Jan. 1, all school boards across the state were instructed to adopt—or further develop—the commonwealth’s model policies surrounding classroom content deemed “sexually explicit.”

The change came in light of a piece of legislation that passed the General Assembly last year, Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant’s Senate Bill (SB) 656. While the bill received limited bipartisan support at some stages in the lawmaking process, Republicans were solely responsible for pushing it through the House of Delegates.

Dunnavant’s plan required policies to include information, guidance, procedures, and standards geared toward notifying parents. The information would directly identify the specific instructional material and sexually explicit subjects. Parents would then have the option to review the instructional material. If they deemed the content inappropriate for their child, the parent could request that their student receive an alternate assignment.

What’s Deemed “Sexually Explicit”? 

Over the summer, the Virginia Department of Education released a “draft for deliberative purposes”, Model Policies Concerning Instructional Materials with Sexually Explicit Content. The document mentioned the the definition of “sexually explicit content” in the Code of Virginia as:

  1. Section 2.2-2827 of the Virginia Code, which pertains to restrictions on accessing sexually explicit content via agency owned or leased computer equipment, states that “Sexually explicit content” “means (i) any description of or (ii) any picture, photograph, drawing, motion picture film, digital image or similar visual representation depicting sexual bestiality, a lewd exhibition of nudity, as nudity is defined in Section 18.2-390, sexual excitement, sexual conduct or sadomasochistic abuse, as also defined in Section 18.2-390, coprophilia, urophilia, or fetishism.” 

However, the policies seemingly glossed over another term included in Section 18.2-390 under “sexual conduct”—homosexuality. That caused concern over what, exactly, could be included in notifications deemed necessary.

At the time, Sen. Louise Lucas took to Twitter, writing: “BREAKING: The [Gov. Glenn] Youngkin administration is now attempting to ban the mention of homosexuality in all Virginia schools—using an outdated and unconstitutional section of Code to define ‘sexually explicit content’ to bypass the General Assembly.”

The senator responded to her own tweet, including a screenshot of a portion of Section 18.2-390. She wrote: “This section of code lists homosexuality seperately (sic) as if being gay was somehow a sexual act.”

In August, ACLU of Virginia also added to the conversation online. The group noted that Virginia students, including those in the LGBTQ+ community and students who were black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) “should not be denied the opportunity to be inspired by stories of people trying to live authentically.”

ACLU of Virginia tweeted: “Denying our children access to diverse viewpoints will only undermine their potential. The role of education is to cultivate understanding and compassion. These foundations will go a long way in growing a new generation of brave people who value diversity, equity, and inclusion.” 

The group also questioned what valuable lessons might be missed if students only had access to “sanitized versions of reality, deprived of real people’s lives and experiences.”

Policies In Place

Despite the concern, school boards across the commonwealth—by law—were supposed to adopt the model policies by the start of the New Year, according to the language in the bill. However, some localities, like Fauquier County, have the policy passage deadline listed as Jan. 23

In November, the Loudoun County School Board voted to adopt a policy that would require a 30-day notice to go out ahead of students going over classroom content deemed “sexually explicit.” Coming in several different forms according to local news coverage, caregivers with students enrolled in Loudoun County Public Schools can expect to see the content warnings included in a list of instructional materials, syllabuses, email, newsletters, and learning management systems.

The Shenandoah County School Board wasn’t far behind. In mid-December, the group not only adopted but also expanded on the model policies, which now also allow parents to request “non-explicit instructional materials and related academic activities” for students.

While a notification process will now be in place statewide, the law does not require or provide for the censoring of books in Virginia’s public schools.