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Va. set to finalize rules on ‘sexually explicit material’ in schools

The Virginia Education Department is finalizing guidelines for parental notification related to “sexually explicit material.” (iStock)
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Virginia schools will soon receive guidelines from the state Education Department for alerting parents about “sexually explicit material” in their students’ curriculums — as required under a recently passed state law.

But as Education Department officials work to finalize the policy, some student activists are demanding revisions that they argue are necessary to protect LGBTQ individuals.

The model guidelines, which span 11 pages and were published in early July, say that school officials statewide must examine all instructional materials before the start of the school year to identify any “sexually explicit content.” Then, school principals must notify parents about this content at least 30 days before its use in class — as well as publishing and maintaining “a current list of instructional materials with sexually explicit content by grade and subject on the school’s public website.”

The guidelines continue: “Principals shall provide online access for parental review of instructional materials that include sexually explicit content … schools shall defer to parents to determine whether the use of sexually explicit content in instructional materials, if any, is appropriate for their child.” If a parent asks, the guidelines state, the school must provide alternative and non-explicit materials to children in “a manner that is not punitive.”

It is unclear what exactly might count as sexually explicit content under the new law — a question schools are left to determine for themselves, given the guidelines provide no examples — but the list seems likely to include items such as sex education class materials or graphic scenes in novels used for English classes.

The department guidelines offer a vague set of rules, sorted by grade level, which appear to apply television maturity ratings to lesson plans. The guidelines say that parents of children in all grades should be notified when instructional materials are “rated Mature Audience (MA) or R”; that parents of K-8 children should be notified when instructional materials “are rated PG-13 or TV-14″; and that parents of K-5 children should be notified when materials “are rated PG or TV-PG.”

The Education Department is developing the guidelines in compliance with a law, signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in April, that mandates schools statewide must inform parents of any “sexually explicit material” included in instructional materials, as well as allow parents to opt their children out of receiving it. The law further says every one of Virginia’s 133 school districts must adopt a version of the Education Department’s model guidelines by Jan. 1.

The department has been accepting public comment on the guidelines online for the past month, according to department spokesman Charles Pyle, although the opportunity for comment is ending Wednesday. Department officials are planning to circulate a final version of the guidelines among school districts after reviewing the more than 1,400 comments — some strongly in favor and some strongly opposed — that self-identified parents and residents have submitted, Pyle said.

New Va. law requires schools alert parents of ‘sexually explicit material’

On Wednesday, a group of more than 600 students added feedback by submitting a letter to the Education Department that critiques the proposed guidelines and suggests that they could lead to the suppression of instruction about LGBTQ issues and individuals.

The students, identified as members of pro-LGBTQ group Pride Liberation Project, noted in their letter that the April state law on parental notification defines “sexually explicit content” as representations of bestiality, pornography, fetishism as well as any form of “sexual conduct” outlined in a specific subsection of Virginia code, § 18.2-390. But that subsection, the students wrote, also lists “homosexuality” as an example of “sexual conduct.”

“In effect, [the law] can potentially be interpreted to define all references to people in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual,” the students wrote. “We are writing to you to ask that the Department of Education develop guidelines that explicitly state that instruction about LTBQIA+ people is not inherently sexual.”

Failing to revise the guidelines, the students warned, “would have a chilling effect on our education.”

Pyle said Wednesday that Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow “is in receipt of the letter and is appreciative of the students’ comments,” as well as the other comments submitted online.

Pyle did not directly answer a question about whether it was reasonable to interpret the model guidelines as equating instruction about LGBTQ individuals with sexually explicit content. Instead, he provided a lengthy legal definition of what counts as sexually explicit material per state code.