Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Department of Education
State Board of Education
Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions [8 VAC 20 ‑ 720]
Action Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials
Comment Period Ended on 1/15/2014
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12/18/13  9:12 am
Commenter: Robin Smith, Chair of the Virginia Conference on English Education

Objections to proposed amendment to 8 VAC 20-720-160

The Virginia Board of Education is to be commended for any initiative intended to enhance or support parental involvement with local public schools.  The proposed regulatory amendment to 8 VAC 20-720-160 is no exception.  We members of the Virginia Conference on English Education, an affiliate group of the National Council of Teachers of English, also wish to state our unequivocal support for parental involvement at every level.  Any time parents are more involved in public schools—more informed, more participatory, more engaged in every aspect—both schools and students benefit. 

In such initiatives, however, care must be taken to maintain reasonable and enforceable regulatory language that neither pushes parents away nor creates unreasonable or onerous burdens for public school personnel. Unfortunately, the language offered in this amendment fails on the latter score.  As now written, the regulatory amendment mandates that high school syllabi include "a notice to parents about any sensitive or sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials." In requiring teachers to provide notice to parents regarding classroom materials, the terms “any,” "sensitive," and “sexually explicit” create a significant burden. 

If this amendment is adopted, the Board is inviting the exclusion of revered and classic texts from English classes in public schools. Do we wish to ban works such as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from Virginia classrooms?  All three of these deal with sensitive and sexually explicit topics.  In addition, other canonical texts by authors such as Whitman, Melville, Dante, Homer, Faulkner, and Morrison also often deal with sensitive and even sexually explicit topics.  With the wide variety of cultures and parenting styles represented in Virginia's diverse schools, every topic and every text can be seen as "sensitive" by someone. Many students may be denied the opportunity to read texts that address topics such as birth, death, political ideology, religious history, contemporary controversies, romantic attraction, conflict, and war because they are considered unacceptable to a few parents.

If this amendment is adopted, schools and teachers will be legally responsible for every word in every text, including works drawn from library materials, popular media, and other sources that legitimately find their way into the contemporary classroom. Most language arts teachers read extensively, but it is not reasonable to expect them to have read—and noted—every instance of potentially controversial language in all materials brought to class, including books chosen by students for such routine and widely used purposes as book reports.

In summary, we, the members of the Virginia Conference on English Education, cannot support this amendment as it is currently written. If passed using this language, it may well impoverish our curriculum by removing from our classrooms important texts and topics.  It may also place an undue burden upon the students and teachers in the public schools of Virginia as they struggle to find texts with no passages that might be deemed sensitive by any member of the public.  With the vast array of pressing issues facing our schools, we would hope to better focus our energies elsewhere.


Dr. Robin D. Smith, Chair, Longwood University


Virginia Conference on English Education

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Cancienne Acgtblu, James Madison University

Dr. Timothy B. Bostic, Old Dominion University

Dr. Leila Christenbury, Virginia Commonwealth University

Dr. Ross Collin, Virginia Commonwealth University

Dr. Mary (Katie) Dredger, James Madison University

Dr. C. Hood Frazier, James Madison University

Dr. William Gribbin, Liberty University

Dr. Natasha A. Henry, University of Virginia

Dr. Kaa Hinton-Johnson, Old Dominion University

Dr. Kathryn H. Kelly, Radford University

Dr. Patricia Kelly, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Dr. Beth Lehman, Eastern Mennonite University 

Dr. Carolyn L. Mathews, Radford University

Dr. John Noell Moore, College of William and Mary

Dr. Roark Mulligan, Christopher Newport University

Dr. Karen Rogers, Bridgewater College

Dr. Gena Southall, Longwood University

Dr. Edgar H. Thompson, Emory and Henry College

Dr. Robert H. Williams, Jr., Radford University

Dr. Daniel Woods, Radford University


CommentID: 29681