Bill increasing parental oversight of school library materials clears House but faces tough Senate
Republicans, Democrats spar over student access to books some call ‘obscene’
A stack of books rest on top of a podium at the Virginia State Capitol building. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)
Legislation giving parents more control over checkout procedures for books and materials in Virginia’s public school libraries passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates Thursday.
But Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, who chairs the Senate’s public education subcommittee, said such a proposal is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The Senate Education and Health Committee earlier this month rejected a different bill from Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, that would have directed school boards to adopt policies for school libraries that included mandatory written parental consent for students to check out materials that depict a child engaged in certain sexual acts.
“If that bill from the House is similar to Sen. DeSteph’s, it will likely receive the same votes,” said Hashmi.
The legislation that cleared the House Thursday was put forward by Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, and would require school principals or their designee to electronically catalog all printed and audiovisual materials in school libraries, identify whether the item contains graphic sexual content and make the catalog available to parents.
It would also direct schools to permit parents to restrict their child’s access to any item that contains graphic sexual content and allow parents to request a graphic sexual content notation for any item.
School library materials have become a political flashpoint in Virginia in recent years, with parents increasingly turning out to school board meetings to challenge books in public schools. During his campaign, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran a television ad on the issue featuring a Fairfax County woman who in 2013 objected to the inclusion of author Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved” in her son’s Advanced Placement high school curriculum. Other challenges have occurred in Virginia Beach and Spotsylvania County.
Last year, Anderson, who is an attorney, and Republican congressional candidate Tommy Altman attempted to take legal action to prevent bookstores from selling two “obscene” books to minors without parental consent. The books were “Gender Queer,” an LGBTQ-themed memoir, and fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury.” A Virginia Beach circuit court judge ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.
Republicans have focused on the rights of parents following controversies over school policy changes, books and school safety issues across Virginia. Meanwhile, Democrats have called for more resources in communities and schools and challenged Republican claims that “inherently divisive concepts” are being taught in schools.
During committee hearings on his legislation, DeSteph, who filed a similar bill last year, urged lawmakers to “protect our children’s innocence as long as humanly possible.”
While movies have ratings, and devices and televisions have parental controls, “our school libraries don’t,” he argued.
“I think it’s a sad state when our children are safer turning on the TV or radio than perusing their local school library,” he said.
Library workers, however, said the bill would place increased burdens on librarians. They also contended school divisions have existing procedures that give parents “significant opportunity” to know and object to the books in the libraries.
“What are these parents telling their children in the home?” asked Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, during the Jan. 12 committee hearing. “If parents are not taking responsibility in the house about what they’re saying to their children, relative to these kinds of materials, it isn’t going to mean anything if that child is going outside of that house and going to a library and accessing these materials.”
Hashmi questioned whether the state should require school librarians and staff to review every material instead of “giving the parents the responsibility of monitoring what their children are encountering.” She also pushed back against the notion that schools have pornographic material.
“I find that hard to believe,” Hashmi said. “Both of my girls went through public schools through Chesterfield County. I never had an incident where they encountered any material in a school library that I would object to. So I find it hard to believe that our schools are brimming with pornography.”
House bills headed for Senate
Besides the bills from Anderson and DeSteph, House Bill 1448 from Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, would direct the Department of Education to recommend model policies for the “selection and removal of books and other audiovisual materials in public schools” by Nov. 1 to the General Assembly. That bill passed the House Thursday.
Anderson has said his legislation does not ban any books from school libraries.
“It simply says me in my household, I don’t want my children to have access to these books, and I have to know what they are before I can do that,” Anderson said Wednesday on the House floor.
Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, said she trusts educators and librarians to do their jobs.
“There’s no teacher, no librarian, no educator that I have met in a classroom that has ever not wanted the best for the children,” Convirs-Fowler said. “This is not our expertise, but rather extremism trying to play to their extreme MAGA base.”
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