Virginia rejects attempt to make schools warn parents of 'explicit' books

State’s board of education throws out measure that would have required warnings to be issued of ‘sexual content’ in texts such as Romeo and Juliet

An attempt to give parents a veto over the teaching of books deemed to contain sexually explicit content has been thrown out by Virginia state education authorities. The measure would have enabled parents to ban children from studying classics such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Diary of Anne Frank and Romeo and Juliet if they deemed their content sexual.

Members of the Virginia board of education rejected the proposal, saying defining sexually explicit content was not a matter for the board.

“We are addressing this by saying we are not going to address the sexually explicit issue in the classroom and we are going to rely on local policy to deal with those issues,” board member Daniel Gecker told the Richmond Times.

The board said that while it acknowledged parents had a right to know what children were taught, titles’ content would not be flagged to them.

A parent, Laura Murphy, who complained that her son had been assigned Morrison’s Beloved to read in class has waged a three-year campaign on the issue. Attempts to get a bill through the state senate were stopped last April by governor Terry McAuliffe. A similar bill is now under consideration in the state legislature.

A parent Laura Murphy, who complained that her son had been assigned Morrison’s Beloved to read in class, has waged a three year campaign on the issue. Attempts to get a bill through the state senate were stopped last April by governor Terry McAuliffe. A similar bill is now under consideration in the state legislature

Critics of the proposal said content warnings would reduce great works of literature to little more than their so-called salacious content.

Brandishing his mobile phone at the meeting, veteran teacher Charles Miller said: “Ironically, these regulations seek to reduce some of the greatest works of literature to nothing more than one of [text] messages.” Other critics claimed that the definition was so broad it would leave few texts unaffected.

Led by the National Coalition Against Censorship, nine national organisations representing writers, publishers, teachers and civil liberties groups wrote to the Virginia board of education ahead of the meeting on Thursday. Their letter claimed the requirement would infringe the constitutional rights of students and parents.

Pointing out that no requirement was to be imposed on other categories of content, the NCAC warned the proposal “would effectively create a parental consent requirement for all students, including some who are not minors, to read educationally valuable materials that contain some sexual references.”

Virginia has been in the frontline of an ongoing battle over school reading materials. In December 2016, attempts to ban To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from schools in Virginia, after a parent complained about racist language, were heavily criticised.

Assaults on books have extended to other US states. In November 2016, a Tennessee mother campaigned for history books that “promote Islamic propaganda” to be removed from schools. In Iowa, a proposed ban on Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower for “graphic sex” was rejected. A wide-ranging proposal by Washington state to ban “potentially frightening books” from state-subsidised nurseries was also ditched, after it emerged that daycare providers were refusing to read classics like Where the Wild Things Are out of fear that their subsidies would be cut.

• This article was amended on 2 February 2017 to clarify that Virginia’s board of education rejected a regulation, not a bill, and that a bill is pending in the state legislature.


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

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