2016-11-23 / Featured / Front Page

After book controversy, state proposes new rules

By Rich Griset

Following the conclusion of the Chesterfield County Public Schools’ summer reading list controversy in September, the Virginia Department of Education is considering a regulation change that would alter how all schools handle sexually explicit materials.

The state Board of Education heard about the amendment to its Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions during its business meeting last week. If approved, the proposal would require every school to provide a notice to parents and legal guardians at the start of each school year identifying any sexually explicit materials that would be used in the classroom.

The regulation already includes requirements for each school division to have policies and procedures addressing sensitive and controversial material. The amendment adds language about sexually explicit material and would require teachers to provide alternative materials and assignments for students upon request.

“What we’re talking about is not the state Board of Education setting a standard,” says Charles Pyle, VDOE spokesman. “It is the state Board of Education, through regulation, telling the local school boards that they’re responsible for this, and they have to have policies and criteria for the selection of materials, a local policy.”

The proposed changes are reminiscent of the “Beloved” bill, which would have required public schools to notify parents about the use of “sexually explicit content” in the classroom, permit parents to review the material, and provide alternate assignments upon request. The bill passed the General Assembly this year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The House of Delegates came just one vote shy of overriding his veto.

“Basically, what the Department of Education is doing is trying to pass something administratively that didn’t pass through the democratic process,” says Josh Zuckerman, program associate with the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Youth Free Expression Program. “Regulators are not democratically accountable, and it’s a lot harder to know what’s going on.”

Zuckerman says the term “sexually explicit” is vague and can be used to target works like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” He argues that requiring teachers to come up with alternate assignments means they will often choose a less controversial book.

“It’s an aspect of censorship within itself,” Zuckerman says. “It’s going to incentivize teachers to avoid using the book in the first place.”

State Sen. Amanda Chase, who supported the “Beloved” bill, approves of the amendments.

“We need to do everything we can to give parents the tools that they need,” Chase says. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Chase was one of the leading voices in Chesterfield’s book controversy this summer, supporting the removal of titles she considered “pornographic” and “trash” from the school system’s summer reading list. That controversy came to a close in September when Superintendent James Lane issued a memo stating that all of the challenged books would remain in school libraries, but that the process for choosing books for inclusion in school libraries would be reviewed.

During the controversy, Chase says she brought the issue to the attention of Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent.

“She was very concerned when I told her what was going on,” says Chase, who sits on the Senate’s Education and Health committee. “It’s great because it shows that we’re working across the aisle. She’s a Democrat; I’m a Republican.”

Chase says it’s important that curriculum lines up with the school system’s core values and that schools should not violate their trust with the public.

“We owe it to the parents of these kids to [be able to] opt out of objectionable materials,” Chase says. “Ultimately, it’s the parents’ role to educate the kids, not the government.”

According to Pyle, the drafted amendments are scheduled to go before the Board of Education on Jan. 26. After that vote, the amendments will go to the governor, attorney general and Virginia Department of Planning and Budget for review. The governor and attorney general’s office have no deadline to complete their review. Following that review, there will be a public comment period before the Board of Education votes on the final regulation. After that, the public has another opportunity to comment before the final regulation is published.

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