On Wednesday, 4/6, Gov. Youngkin signed into law Senate Bill 656 (SB 656), which would give parents the authority to prevent their children from learning material deemed “sexually explicit content.” While the bill is lauded by some as parental choice, its true intent and impact is classroom censorship.
SB 656 requires the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to issue model policies for school boards on how they are to provide notice of and the means to review instructional material deemed as “sexually explicit content” to parents. The bill also requires teachers to provide alternative materials upon request. It needlessly singles out “sexually explicit content” while there are already processes at local school districts for parents to access and review curriculum, and request accommodations for their children. While SB 656 may not explicitly censor what books are taught, it puts teachers and librarians in the unenviable position of having to determine if a book qualifies under the policies. This will most likely result in censorship due to teacher and librarian’s fear or confusion over what qualifies as “sexually explicit content.”
"Sexually explicit" is a vague and overly broad term that could be used to exclude important reading materials like Beloved by Toni Morrison or Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. The law could allow a scene or a paragraph to be taken out of context and used by some as a reason to label the book "sexually explicit," without considering the full context or the lessons students can learn. "Sexually explicit content”, as defined in the Virginia code, can include everything from teaching LGBTQ+ history to excluding the discussion of LGBTQ+ families in family life classes.
Freedom of thought and expression is the foundation of a free nation. The classroom is where students are exposed to new ideas and various viewpoints, bettering their understanding of self and the world in which we live. Labeling books as having “sexually explicit content” with no context and understanding of the materials severely limits a teachers' ability to present varied experiences and perspectives.
We all want the best education for our children. Exposing students to different people and cultures broadens their perspective and understanding of the world in which they live. It sparks their curiosity, encourages critical thinking, and equips them with the skills needed to lead good and meaningful lives – however they define it. That's critical to building a tolerant and inclusive world where diversity and differences are strengths.