During the 2022 General Assembly session, the Virginia Catholic Conference -- the public policy agency representing Virginia’s Catholic bishops and their two dioceses – supported SB 656. Enacted on April 6, this new law requires that parents be notified before sexually explicit content is used in the classroom and ensures that parents can obtain alternative material for their child. We thank the Department of Education for issuing proposed model policies for school boards to implement the new law, and urge the Department to adopt several amendments to strengthen them.
On the basis of these fundamental principles, we believe the draft Model Policies offer many good and vitally important provisions but can be strengthened by adding the following five proposed amendments.
SB 656 mandates parental notification whenever instructional materials contain sexually explicit content. Instructional materials are defined on page 9, II, C:
[I]nstructional material and instructional materials mean any content used by one or more students for an educational purpose, regardless of (a) its format...or (b) the time place and manner in which the content is used. Library materials are considered instructional materials when used (i) for completion of an assignment or (ii) as part of an academic or extracurricular educational program. This includes any division, school, and/or classroom purchased or created assessments.
With regard to library materials, we recommend adding:
Library materials are considered instructional materials when used (i) for completion of an assignment; (ii) as part of an academic or extracurricular educational program or (iii) when made available to students for optional use inside the classroom or externally, e.g., online.
On page 10, III. B., the Sample Policy states that:
When determining whether instructional materials contain sexually explicit content, teachers, principals, and division staff should consider the student age and maturity, and whether a parent might reasonably consider the instructional content harmful to their child.
This subjective standard would undermine the ability of parents to evaluate explicit content and contradict the intent of SB 656. Parents – not school officials – are the best evaluators of their own child’s maturity – a factor that can vary greatly from student to student, even those of the same age. Similarly, it would be arbitrary to allow a school or division official to decide what a parent might reasonably consider harmful content. If some school officials were to apply a narrow interpretation of what constitutes sexually explicit material, the result would be less content submitted to parents, and a diminished opportunity for them to screen potentially harmful content. The fundamental purpose of SB 656 is to make sure parents are fully notified and empowered to make decisions. This proposed language works against that purpose and should be replaced with:
When determining whether instructional materials contain sexually explicit content, teachers, principals, and division staff should err on the side of disclosing all such content to parents.
On page 10, Part C., the Sample Policy provides four instances in which parental notification should occur. The first three are associated with a specific movie rating and a corresponding television rating. The fourth is the situation involving an unrated source. The subsection reads:
In concert with the definitions and terminology provided herein, teachers, principals and division staff should consider the following when determining whether parent notification is required:
We recommend the following instead:
In concert with the definitions and terminology provided herein, teachers, principals and division staff shall apply the following criteria when determining whether parent notification is required:
In C.4., the current language reads:
With respect to unrated instructional materials, parents should be notified if any portion contains sexually explicit content.
With respect to unrated instructional materials, parents shall always be notified in advance regardless of whether the source contains sexually explicit content.
In place of the current language on page 11 in V., B:
Principals shall provide online access for parental review of instructional materials that include sexually explicit content, unless not technically feasible or prohibited by copyright protection.
Principals shall provide online access for parental review of instructional materials that include sexually explicit content. If online access to the materials is not technically feasible or is prohibited by copyright protection, the principal shall provide an online fact sheet and summary of the content.
Thank you for considering these five proposed amendments, which we believe would clarify and enhance an already good draft, and further align it with the purpose of SB 656 and the fundamental rights of parents.
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 16.3 provides “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” See also: Article 26.3: Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
 While many teachers and administrators may already carefully screen instructional materials to protect children, it is clear that leaving this authority to school officials has not always worked in practice and has actually harmed children.