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2017-02-15 / Featured / Front Page

‘Sexually explicit’ books bill passes House

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER

A bill that would require schools to notify parents about “sexually explicit” materials used in the classroom passed the Virginia House of Delegates last week, and is currently making its way through the state Senate.

As of press time Monday, House Bill 2191, sponsored by Del. Steve Landes (R-Verona), was being reviewed by the Senate’s Committee on Education and Health. Landes sponsored a similar bill last year – often referred to as the “Beloved bill” – that passed the General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In his veto explanation, McAuliffe stated that the Virginia Board of Education was already reviewing this matter, and that the bill was unnecessary because of it.

This January, the board had its final review of an amendment that would have required parental notification of books that are “sexually explicit,” but ultimately decided against it for numerous reasons, including the problem of defining the term “sexually explicit.” To that end, Landes’ bill defines “sexually explicit content” as content involving any criminal assault punishable as a felony under the Code of Virginia, and as of Monday, had an amendment that added “crimes against nature” to the definition. Landes’ bill also requires that students have the option to use substitute, non-explicit materials upon request.

Issues of labeling and notification – which some opponents say is a de facto form of censorship – and content in books have been hot topics in Virginia lately. Accomack County garnered national headlines last year when it temporarily removed copies of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” from schools after an African-American parent complained about the use of the N-word in the books. Chesterfield was embroiled in a controversy last year when a group of parents objected to books included on the school system’s summer reading list. Three of those books were reviewed by a committee that declared them age-appropriate.

Sitting in his ninth-floor office in a canary-yellow shirt and brown plaid bow-tie, Landes discussed the bill with the Observer on Monday. Landes said he introduced the bill again this session because the concern still needs to be addressed.

“The Board of Education was working on this, and I’ve been working with them, tracking what the board was going to do. Our intent was to codify what they were considering,” Landes said. Addressing the board’s decision against requiring notification, he said, “They got pressure from the ACLU, and folks that demagogued the bill last year were going to demagogue this year.”

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, disagrees with Landes’ bill, saying many of the books in question are being used by 17- and 18-year-olds in 12th-grade Advanced Placement courses. “We think that it is both educationally unsound and constitutionally suspect, and we’ve been saying this for a year now,” Bertin said. “These are kids who are headed to college, and they’re going to be confronted with this kind of material if they take college-level English classes.” Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said the bill is all about empowering parents regarding what their children are reading.

“Parents have the fundamental right to make decisions about the education of their children,” Cobb said. “This bill simply ensures that when it comes to the materials that their children are being taught, they have the info they need to make those decisions wisely.”

Shelley Murray, a longtime librarian at Meadowbrook High School and former English teacher, disagrees with the bill, and is critical of Landes’ definition of “sexually explicit.”

“Why would you draw the line there, because you could have a book that includes graphic descriptions between consenting adults, and that would not be classified [as explicit] by this bill,” Murray said.

In response to that critique, Landes said he was trying to create a practical definition that could be widely applied.

“We didn’t try to get into other things, because that opens up other concerns and debate,” Landes said. “It’s simply a way to allow parents to have some say. We’re not banning books. We’re not saying that they can’t have those materials from an instructional standpoint.” ¦

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