Saturday, April 20, 2024

Democrats Propose Tweaks to Parental Notification Law, Citing Censorship concerns

(Courtesy Photo of Kennedy Library via The Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Over the past year, several Virginia school divisions have cited a 2022 state law that created a process for notifying parents of sexually explicit instructional materials in school libraries as justification for pulling books from the shelves.

That law, which was carried by former Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, became a particular flashpoint in the November elections when Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, ran an ad attacking her for having helped fuel a wave of book bans. VanValkenburg, then a delegate, ultimately edged out Dunnavant to take the seat.

Now, with narrow control of both chambers of the General Assembly, Democrats aren’t rolling back the bill. Instead, legislation from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, and Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, would modify and put into state code language that appeared in an enactment clause on Dunnavant’s original bill specifying the law “shall not be construed as requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”

The new language says that nothing in the law or any policy on sexually explicit content put forward by the Department of Education or a local school board “shall be construed to permit the censoring of books in any public elementary or secondary school.”

“One thing we want to make clear is that parental notification and parental consent does not equal … the right to remove books completely from the school or from classroom libraries,” said Hashmi. “Now, the original patron of this bill said that was her intent, but the way in which this bill, the legislation, has now been carried out in many school divisions is quite the opposite.”

Hashmi said state law will continue to require school divisions to notify parents of instructional material that contains sexually explicit content and allow parents to review that material.

“Challenging material versus notifying parents are two entirely different things,” Hashmi said. “This section of the code seeks to address the issue of parental notification. The only thing this bill is doing is taking the enactment clause that was originally passed and restoring it to the full legislation so it’s quite clear what parental notification means.”

The enactment clause

Democrats and other supporters of the change have said that because the censorship language in the 2022 law only appeared in an enactment clause — which shows up in the Acts of Assembly but not the online Code of Virginia used by many school divisions as a reference — school boards were ignoring its stated intent.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, who has voted for the legislation, said during a House Education subcommittee hearing that the bill “is simply moving the language in the hard copy of the code and body of the statute to the body of the bill where it can be seen online.”

School divisions including Hanover and Spotsylvania have cited the 2022 parental notification law as a basis for removing books from schools.

“These actions taken by these localities have absolutely nothing to do with parental consent. They are clear acts of censorship,” Hashmi said during a Senate Education subcommittee hearing. “So this prohibition on using the parental consent statute for purposes of censorship makes it clear that the removal of books from schools is not the purpose of the law that was passed in 2022.”

Representatives from the Virginia Association of School Librarians and Virginia Library Association said they support the legislation.

“Rather than giving parents the right to consent to their child having access to sexually explicit instructional material in the classroom or to request alternative nonexplicit instructional material, some school divisions have simply used the statute as a basis for removing materials from the school,” said Lisa Varga, executive director for the Virginia Library Association. “This is a clear violation of the statute’s prohibition on censorship.”

Censorship and protection

Democrats say their legislation won’t take away a school division’s ability to remove certain books from schools. However, Republicans say the changes they’re proposing to the language in Dunnavant’s earlier bill in effect does that.

While Dunnavant’s legislation said the parental notification rules shouldn’t be construed as requiring or allowing censorship, the new language says they can’t be used as justification for it.

Sen. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, who voted against the Senate bill, said the proposed changes would “prohibit a school board from taking action that would remove something that is just totally egregious.

“You might call that censorship,” he said. “That’s good parenting in my mind.”

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, said the reason why there is an “elevated level of concern” is because it appears the proposal would restrict school boards from removing certain materials from public school libraries.

“I would hope that we could all agree that there are some materials that regardless of what an individual parent may want, they have no business being in a public school library,” Freitas said.

During a Feb. 15 news conference at the Capitol, the socially conservative Family Foundation said the new bill would undermine parents’ ability to ensure school library books are age-appropriate.

“They’re trying to put the word censorship into our code to have a chilling effect on these school boards,” said Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb. “So the school boards can look at parents and go, ‘We can’t do anything.’”

Asked if the new bill would legally prohibit school boards from removing library books en masse, Cobb said, “That’s going to come down to the lawyers.”

Del. Eric Zehr, R-Campbell, attempted to amend the legislation, but his efforts failed.

One amendment would have said that magazines and other books containing “sexually explicit content” cannot be made available to children in elementary and secondary schools. A second amendment would have required the Department of Education and local school boards to review whether boards can decide to remove books from public schools.

Zehr said he proposed the amendments to “protect children from the worst pornography.”

“Sex is a beautiful thing,” he said. “It was created to be between a husband and wife. Many parents try to preserve that innocence in their children, and I don’t believe that those parents should have their taxpayer dollars used to undermine the beauty of this subject.”

Democrats including Delaney have repeatedly insisted every school district has a pathway for books to review and if necessary remove inappropriate materials from schools.

“Nothing about this bill changes that fact,” Delaney said. “If a book is inappropriate, any parent in this commonwealth has a pathway for their local school jurisdiction to review, challenge and consider the removal, and if it is indeed inappropriate for that school, it can still be removed.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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