Virginia Senate votes to give parents final say over sexually explicit classroom materials

The passage marks a victory for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made parental oversight a major campaign plank

By: - February 9, 2022 5:22 pm

The Virginia Senate. (2020 file photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Senate passed a bill that would require local school districts to adopt policies informing parents of any sexually explicit content used in class — and provide alternative materials on request. 

Sens. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, joined Republicans Wednesday in supporting the legislation, which is all but certain to sail through the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. The 20-18 vote, with two senators absent, marks a victory for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who listed the bill as part of his “day one” legislative agenda and made parental oversight over curriculum a key aspect of his campaign platform.

The language of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, is nearly identical to legislation that passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support in 2016. The earlier bill also required the Virginia Department of Education to develop a statewide policy on parental notification for every public elementary or secondary school. And like Dunnavant’s bill, the 2016 legislation would require schools to provide “nonexplicit instructional material and related academic activities to any student whose parent so requests.”

State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The issue resurged in Virginia during the 2021 gubernatorial contest between Youngkin and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe vetoed the 2016 legislation, which had become known as the “Beloved” bill, according to the Washington Post. 

The legislation was at least partially inspired by concerns by a Fairfax County mother who petitioned the district to remove Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” from her son’s high school Advanced Placement English course. In the justification for his veto, McAuliffe said the bill lacked flexibility, “and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context.”

The 2016 House of Delegates only narrowly failed to override his veto on a 66-34 vote (overturning the decision would have required a two-thirds majority). But bipartisan support for the measure has largely evaporated since it became a campaign issue. McAuliffe defended the decision in a September debate, saying “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Some pundits have characterized the debate as a turning point in the gubernatorial campaign. Youngkin made the issue a significant feature of his broader push for parental oversight over curriculum, running an advertisement featuring the Fairfax County mother who inspired the 2016 bill. 

An ad released by Gov. Glenn Youngkin featured a Fairfax County mother who objected to the inclusion of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ on her son’s Advanced Placement high school curriculum.

Since then, Democrats have widely spoken against the legislation, which is also opposed by groups including the Virginia Education Association. Both educators and legislators have argued that most local school divisions already have systems in place for notifying parents if students are assigned controversial material in class.

“Parents always get copies of the reading lists that their children are expected to go through,” said Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, in a debate before the vote on the bill. Other lawmakers argued the legislation could lead districts to remove certain books from the classroom. 

“The senator has argued this is not a censorship bill, but in fact, this is what it comes from and what it leads to,” said Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield. “It is this understanding that somehow there are materials that should not be available in schools.”

“Invariably, it is the writing of Black and brown authors,” she added. “We see this debate take place publicly, particularly recently about Toni Morrison.”

Supporters of the legislation, though, have repeatedly argued the bill is aimed solely at expanding parental oversight. A House committee advanced identical legislation on Wednesday morning, and Dunnavant’s bill is more narrowly tailored than related legislation from Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, which aimed to regulate not just curricular material but all texts in school libraries. An early version of DeSteph’s bill, which failed in committee, also called for the removal of what he described as “grooming materials” — a defined term in Virginia code related to depictions of children engaged in sexual acts in the context of child pornography or soliciting minors for sex.

Dunnavant drew her definition of sexually explicit from a separate section of Virginia law that limits what content state employees can access on government-provided computers. The legislation includes a stipulation that it should not be interpreted “as requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”

“This bill is something we can all embrace,” she said. “Because it’s about actually making sure tough conversations happen and parents interact with their children on those things.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.