School Board members Thursday nigh were presented a new draft policy that will bring the division in line with Virginia Board of Education guidance on sexually explicit content.
During the Sept. 23 meeting of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, Assistant Superintendent Ashley Ellis and Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Neil Slevin briefed members Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) and Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn) on the first draft of the new policy, Policy 5055 that would require notifying parents of sexually explicit content in instructional materials. They said another policy which sets procedures for the selection, review, and challenge of educational material also would need to be updated with the new policy.
Committee member Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian) was absent.
Policy 5055 includes protocols to identify all instructional material with sexually explicit content, to notify parents of such content, to allow parents to review the sexually explicit material and to make sure alternative materials are provided for any student who requests it.
Ellis said the new policy is based on VDOE guidance with a few minor differences. Those include an expanded definition section and the addition of a section stating that the censorship of books may not be based solely on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the characters featured. The state Department of Education’s model policy had drawn concerns that it may be discriminatory based on those.
According to both the state’s model policy and the proposed division policy, library materials are not considered instructional material unless used for an assignment or part of an extracurricular educational program.
Parents are to have 30 days advance notice if instructional material is considered sexually explicit, according to the new policy. It also states the division will maintain a list of instructional material with sexually explicit material on its website.
“Much of the intent of Policy 5055 aligns to our current practice with the selection of texts in our classrooms,” Slevin said, noting that the current practice in secondary schools is to offer alternative materials.
Ellis said the presentation to the committee was just the beginning of a conversation expected to take many weeks and they “felt it was important enough to be very clear and to take our time and be very thorough with this process.”
Slevin said steps are already being taken to work with families in relation to school libraries, including increased transparency as to what books have been challenged, increased support of schools for selection of materials, and an increase in the oversite of which books are being purchased in schools.
During the presentation, Slevin said eight books were pulled out of circulation over concerns last year. He said of those, only one title was removed. He pointed out a list of notable books that might be identified as containing sexually explicit content under the VDOE policy, including “Kite Runner” by Kahled Hosseini, “1984” by George Orwell, “The Odyssey” by Homer, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison.
The process over the next several months to get the new policy approved includes gathering input from the public as well as from key stakeholder groups. It will go before the Curriculum and Instruction Committee as an action item Nov. 7, according to Wayde Byard, Loudoun County Public Schools public information officer. It must go before the full board for a vote, the latest that could be is the Dec. 13 School Board meeting. Policy 5045, on selecting school materials, will be brought up again at the next iteration of policy 5055, Ellis said.
Ellis said the staff is expecting additional policy guidance from the Virginia School Boards Association sometime in October. She noted that it is unusual for the VSBA to develop a policy, but it is expected to be similar to the VDOE guidance.
The 2022 Model Policies were created after the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 656 into law in April. The bill added a section to Virginia Code requiring parental notification of any instructional material that included sexually explicit content and included directly identifying specific instructional material with sexually explicit subjects and provide a review by parents and allow for an alternative material choice. The 2022 Model Polices are required by law and school boards are required to adopt them either as is or altered to be “more comprehensive than the model policies developed by the Department,” according to the model polices.
School boards across the state now have until Jan 1 to create and implement polices similar to the model ones.