RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill up for debate during the 2023 session would require written parental approval before a student is allowed to check out school library material considered sexually explicit.
It’s among the bills addressing parental rights — one of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s top priorities — that the General Assembly started debating on Thursday. It faces an uphill battle after getting a thumbs down from a key Senate panel.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) would require every local school board to adopt new policies on the selection and evaluation of material in school libraries.
“I’m not saying ban it. I’m not saying burn it. I’m not saying remove it from the library,” DeSteph told a Senate subcommittee focused on public education.
DeSteph’s bill would mandate prior written parental consent before a student is permitted to check out “print or audiovisual materials that depict a child engaged in the fondling of the sexual or genital parts of another or the fondling of his sexual or genital parts by another, masturbation, sexual intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, anilingus, anal intercourse, or object sexual penetration.”
“My concern is graphic sexual content that would be rated “X” in a movie theater is being shown or allowed for our children to check out,” DeSteph said in an interview on Thursday. “What we’re seeking to do is, like you have parental controls on your telephone, your computer or at home on your TV, we want to put parental controls at the library.”
The subcommittee voted 3-2 along party lines to advise the full Senate Education and Health Committee to kill the bill when it comes up for another vote later this session.
“I find it hard to believe that our schools are brimming with pornography,” said Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), who chairs the subcommittee.
Hashmi sided with several groups representing librarians, who said it would be a tremendous burden to review every book for possible sexual content.
“We have trusted our professionals for generations and I continue to place trust in our public school libraries,” Hashmi said in an interview before the meeting.
If passed, the legislation would build on a new law requiring schools to warn parents in advance about sexually explicit classroom material. The legislation allows parents to opt out of those lessons and ask for an alternate assignment. School divisions were required to adopt new state standards aligning with this policy by Jan. 1, 2023 but the Virginia Department of Education is not actively tracking compliance, according to VDOE Spokesperson Charles Pyle.
Another bill debated on Thursday seeks to expand parental rights and ensure transparency in education, according to bill sponsor Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield).
It declares that parents have a right to 11 categories of educational information. It addresses instructional materials, the textbook approval process, student surveys, school spending, field trips and information about school board meetings, among other things.
The bill faces opposition from the Virginia Education Association (VEA) and the Virginia School Boards Association. Speakers argued many of the items outlined in the bill are already public information and that this would be better handled at the local level.
Much of the concern surrounded another section of the bill ensuring a parent’s right to receive notice of and give informed consent to any school counseling or guidance program offered to their child. Critics said the language was overly broad and would pose logistical challenges. The VEA pointed out that some students may need counseling services after being abused at home.
Senator Chase agreed to work on some edits and revisit the bill on a later date.
But Senator Hashmi thinks the legislation sends the wrong message.
“The implied message in the bill is that schools are hiding something and that is simply not the case. There is great transparency in the educational process,” Hashmi said.
But Chase and parents who attended the meeting said these measures are necessary to restore trust in school boards that was fractured during the pandemic. She said the bill was also inspired by recent turmoil in Loudoun County.
“They are hiding something and that’s exactly why we have Attorney General Miyares who is conducting an investigation into what happened with the Loudoun County School Board,” Chase said.