|Action||Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials|
|Comment Period||Ends 1/15/2014|
In response to the August, 2012 repeal of outdated regulations relating to approval of textbooks and instructional materials and the consolidation of remaining regulations in 8VAC20-720, The Virginia State Board of Education now seeks public comment on its intent to “add provisions regarding the procedures school divisions must have in place to address the use of sensitive or controversial instructional materials in the classroom.”
I am an attorney and also an English teacher in the Albemarle County Public School System. The comments I offer here are my own opinions as a citizen of this Commonwealth, and should in no way be attributed to my employer.
The current regulations specify that local school boards must adopt policies and criteria for the selection of instructional materials that give parents the right “to inspect, upon request, any instructional materials used as part of the educational curriculum for student” in accordance with federal law and regulations. 8VAC20-720-160(B)(1). Additionally, board policies and criteria must address the “basis upon which a person may seek reconsideration of the local school board’s selection of instructional materials…and the procedures for doing so” and establish “clear procedures for handling controversial materials.”
Parents have the right – and the duty – to inspect the books and other materials that their children are exposed to during the year. Exercise of this parental duty requires simply that school boards implement notice and comment procedures for books being considered for inclusion on their approved lists, along with a clear set of procedures for handling any challenges to books and materials that already have been adopted. Parent rights are fully protected when these two elements are satisfied, and the current regulations reflect this understanding. Any proposed amendments to this system should be confined ONLY to parental notice methods and to regulatory procedures for challenges to existing materials.
Parental notice requirements should involve ONLY the titles of the books under consideration for adoption and notice that the parent has the opportunity to inspect those books during the adoption process and offer comments for or against their inclusion on the approved list. Notice should NOT require proactive identification of material that might conceivably offend someone, somewhere. Teachers and school boards are not psychics. They cannot enter the minds of an enormously diverse parent population and identify content that each parent might conceivably find objectionable. Any requirement that they attempt to do so will create additional burdens on systems and instructors who are already awash in regulatory requirements that rob our students of valuable instructional time. More importantly, any requirement that teachers or school boards proactively identify potentially objectionable material could be vulnerable to a Constitutional overbreadth argument because it is, as a practical matter, impossible to define with precision what is obscene and outside the protection of the First Amendment. Practically speaking, requiring such a proactive identification requirement would also be meaningless, as evidenced by the industry labeling of so-called offensive lyrics and video games. The labels become so ubiquitous that they lose all usefulness.
Parenting is a difficult job. But it not my job as a teacher. My job is to present materials that have been approved through fair and legal process to my students, and to address individual parent issues with those materials as they arise, in a manner that is fair to ALL of my students. Parental objections can be worked out on an ad hoc basis, where parents are willing to do their job and to let me do mine. I teach literature. Great literature revolves around important social and emotional issues. Forcing the school system to label all of Shakespeare, Homer, and other classics as potentially offensive is not the answer to addressing idiosyncratic parental objections. Sitting down like reasonable people and working things out IS the answer. And in those extremely rare cases where solutions can’t be found, then simply having a regulatory system in place to allow parents to challenge a book that THEY have inspected and determined to be offensive is all that the law – and sanity – require.