Curriculum

School Districts Struggle to Implement New Laws on Sexually Explicit Books

By Madyson Fitzgerald, Stateline.org — June 19, 2023 6 min read
Blue toned photograph of a school library with the -chairs placed upside down on tables and bare shelves in the background.
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Although a new Virginia law requires schools to inform parents when sexually explicit materials are used in the classroom, some districts are using that law as the basis to go further and remove certain books from schools altogether.

Book ban requests across the state often have cited the Virginia law, which was signed last year by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The law requires schools to ensure parents are notified of any instructional material that includes sexually explicit content and allows them to request alternative materials for their children.

But Virginia Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who introduced the bill last year, said the law was never intended to be a pretext for book bans in school libraries and on classroom shelves.

“This is not about books,” Dunnavant said. “This is not about censoring. This is about collaboration and what’s in the best interest of a child. And so, I was sorry to hear … that in some cases someone is using this bill in the wrong way.”

Legislatures in other states, including Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah, have likewise passed laws aimed at giving parents control over or banning explicit sexual materials from classrooms. But school districts in many of the states with new laws are still figuring out whether that includes library books, books used in the classroom or both.

Kasey Meehan, who directs PEN America’s Freedom to Read project, said vague legislation and loose guidance in some states have a chilling effect on school decision-makers, who become overly cautious.

“This is where we see legislation empowering local actors — or giving local actors — something to point to when they look to censor certain books,” Meehan said.

Virginia’s law required the state Department of Education to create model policies for ensuring local school districts notify parents via email or in-person meetings when students may be using library books with sexual content to complete an assignment or during extracurricular academic programs. Parents also have the right to review the material and make decisions on what their students can and can’t read.

But some Virginia school boards, like that of Hanover County Public Schools, are still nailing down the specifics of their own policies amid calls for bans.

At its May 9 meeting, the Hanover County School Board heard more than an hour and a half of public comments, many regarding its draft policy, with new rules determining how requests for book bans will be handled.

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Protesters read in the middle of the Texas Capitol rotunda as The Texas Freedom Network holds a "read-in" to protest HB 900 Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The bill would ban sexually explicit materials from library books in schools.
Protesters read in the middle of the Texas Capitol rotunda as The Texas Freedom Network holds a "read-in" to protest HB 900 Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The bill would ban sexually explicit materials from library books in schools. Mass book bans in a handful of districts are influenced by state legislation, PEN America found.
Mikala Compton/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Within a few weeks following the meeting, one organization sent the board a list of more than 100 books it wanted removed from shelves. The list, provided to Stateline by Hanover County Public Schools, includes notes on sexual content, profanity, violence, drug use and more.

On June 13, the school board voted in favor of the new policy. Under it, material challenged for having “pervasive vulgarity” or sexually explicit content will be removed if the school librarian and principal agree. If not, the matter will be forwarded to the school board office, where a committee or designated officials will review it. The board also may at its sole discretion vote to remove “any and all materials of its choosing from the library, classroom, school building(s) and or division.”

The board voted to remove 17 titles that same night.

Less than an hour away in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, officials removed 14 titles from schools for sexually explicit content after a parent complained, in order to comply with the parental notification law, according to a memo from Superintendent Mark B. Taylor.

Taylor, who became superintendent last year, earlier this year had suggested eliminating libraries as a cost-reduction measure. He also ruled that the 14 books challenged by the parent as inappropriate be removed from school libraries.

The removed books will be kept in storage, according to the county. Spotsylvania County Public Schools teachers can also use these materials in the classroom with parental consent.

“Our public school libraries contain roughly 390,000 books,” Taylor wrote in a statement to Stateline. “Books have apparently been added to our libraries for years based only on short summary reviews. This practice has left us with limited awareness of the contents of our public school libraries. Our lack of awareness of the sexually explicit content present in our libraries disables us from giving parents the advance notice and the choice to avoid such content that they are entitled to under the law.”

The Spotsylvania County School Board voted 4-3 in May in favor of removing books it deemed sexually explicit. In response, the ACLU of Virginia issued a statement saying the county had misinterpreted Virginia law.

“Unfortunately, the way Virginia code is written is so open-ended as to allow this kind of dangerous mission creep,” Ashna Khanna, the ACLU of Virginia’s policy director, wrote. “Until this poorly written code is repealed, other overzealous school boards may try to ban books that simply make them uncomfortable.”

And last year in Virginia Beach, then-state Del. Tim Anderson, a Republican, filed suit with former GOP congressional candidate Tommy Altman to restrict two titles from being sold out of bookstores to minors on the grounds of a state obscenity law. A judge threw out the case after finding the law itself to be unconstitutional. (Anderson resigned his seat in April to run for the state Senate.)

While book bans have increased nationwide in the past few years, they have been a controversial issue for centuries, said Trisha Tucker, an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“Knowing more about and sharing more about the actual changing narratives about children — about how they read, about what’s dangerous for them — can help us realize that none of this is natural or universal,” she said.

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Photo of librarian pushing book cart.
Wavebreak Media / Getty Images Plus

Last year, the American Library Association documented 1,269 attempts to censor over 2,500 unique library books and resources. Of these, 90% were part of requests to censor multiple titles at once.

Officials banned books last year in 138 school districts across 32 states, according to PEN America.

In the latest ban attempt that drew nationwide attention, a Miami-Dade County, Florida, school responding to one parent’s complaint restricted the poem “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman, a Black poet who had read it at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed a number of laws regarding books in schools, including one defining “adequate instructional materials” in K-12 schools.

The Florida laws have created confusion around book bans, causing some districts to keep books from shelves and critics to complain about decisions being made behind the scenes, the Miami Herald reported.

Addressing book bans in a news conference this June, Biden announced the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will appoint a new coordinator to “address the growing threat that book bans pose for the civil rights of students.” Efforts to ban books disproportionally single out titles about LGBTQ+ communities and communities of color.

In Connecticut, two Republican members of the Newtown Board of Education resigned in May after the board deadlocked in a 3-3 vote over whether to ban two books. Democratic lawmakers in the state recently proposed a bill that would allow municipalities to designate “sanctuary libraries” for banned or censored books.

Illinois this week became the first state to pass legislation effectively ending book bans in the state. The bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker will block state funding for public schools and libraries that ban books. It takes effect in January 2024.

In Virginia, Eden Heilman, the legal director of the state chapter of the ACLU, said the legislation there remains “problematic.”

“I think what’s happening is — for example, in Spotsylvania — they’re misinterpreting Virginia code to empower themselves to take these bold, broad measures that aren’t authorized in the law,” Heilman said.

Copyright (c) 2023, Stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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