POWHATAN – The handling of controversial topics in classrooms and notifying parents when it is going to happen was a significant focus for the Powhatan County School Board recently that will carry into the new year.
While not a new topic, the drive that brought this issue to the forefront now was Senate Bill 656, which requires all school divisions to develop a policy ensuring parental notification of any instructional material that includes “sexually explicit content.” The deadline for school boards to adopt policies is no later than Jan. 1, 2023.
The policy is supposed to include information, guidance, procedures and standards relating to ensuring parental notification; directly identifying the specific instructional material and sexually explicit subjects; permitting the parent of any student to review instructional material that includes sexually explicit content; and providing, as an alternative, non-explicit instructional material and related academic activities to any student whose parent so requests.
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Using the starting point of a model policy from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), the central office leadership and instructional team developed a revision for Policy IIA for Powhatan County Public Schools (PCPS) that was first presented for review to the school board on Nov. 8. The board was made aware during the presentation that they would need to adopt the policy at the Dec. 13 meeting. Powhatan’s revisions to its policy do not provide as much detail as the VDOE sample draft, such as a requirement for a 30-day parental notification, with the intention that more specificity would be present in the regulations used to enforce the broad policy.
The board ultimately voted unanimously last week to pass the revision to the policy, acknowledging that while they weren’t done with the topic, they had to have something in place to meet the state’s deadline.
However, the conversation sparked by this policy indicated some board members and community members thought the policy did not do enough to spell out what topics should trigger the need for parental notification and if the division’s policies provide enough guidance for staff members.
In addition to notification regarding sexually explicit material, District 4 representative James Taylor, who first began raising issues with Policy IIA not going far enough in November, asked last week for notification regarding topics such as gender identity, sexual behavior, ideologies that would ascribe value and status based on skin color and religious convictions.
Taylor stressed several times that this discussion was not about banning controversial topics but about informing parents when discussion topics or classroom and instructional materials could impact their children.
In November, staff pointed out that Taylor’s initial ask, which was for gender identity to be included in the policy regarding sexually explicit content for notification, was not possible because gender identity did not meet the state’s definition of sexually explicit content.
Va. Code 2.2-2827 defines “sexually explicit content” as “any description of or any picture, photograph, drawing, motion picture film, digital image or similar visual representation depicting sexual bestiality, a lewd exhibition of nudity as defined in 18.2-390, sexual excitement, sexual conduct or sadomasochistic abuse, as also defined in 18.2-390, coprophilia, urophilia, or fetishism.”
The code defines “sexual conduct” as “actual or explicitly simulated acts of masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact in an act of apparent sexual stimulation or gratification with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or, if such be female, breast.”
Last week, Taylor instead asked for the topics such as gender identity, sexual behavior, ideologies that would ascribe value and status based on skin color and religious convictions to be included in Policy INB, which deals with teaching about controversial issues. He also liked a resident’s suggestion earlier in the evening about putting in a clause regarding discipline of staff members who do not comply with the school board’s policy.
Valarie Ayers, District 3, pushed back against the additions to Policy INB, saying the school division already has existing policies regarding some of the topics he mentioned, such as nondiscrimination and religion in schools. It makes more sense for the school board to revise those existing policies to include 30-day parental notification clauses so people can find all of the information about a specific topic in one place, she argued.
As such, the board is bringing forward at least three policies on Jan. 10, 2023 – INB (teaching about controversial issues), AC (nondiscrimination) and INDC (religion in schools) – for review to discuss possibly adding language regarding parental notifications.
Within this discussion were a few additional related topics. One was the question of how detailed a policy, which is adopted by the board, should be and how much detail should instead be put in regulations developed by staff. Regulations have been presented to the board in the past, but they are not always voted on, it was pointed out.
Superintendent Beth Teigen said one of the reasons staff wasn’t recommending putting a 30-day notice requirement in policy was because there are examples where it isn’t practical, such as students taking Anatomy and Physiology, which would automatically put the school division out of compliance with its own policy. The goal of staff is to keep the policies streamlined but the regulations having as much detail as possible, she said. She added that while some school divisions do not have regulations come back before the board, it seems to be a recent practice in Powhatan to do so and she is ready to continue doing that.
During the public comment period, a few of the four speakers brought up the difference between policies and regulations, arguing for clear, detailed and unambiguous policies adopted by the school board instead of relying on regulations approved by staff later to carry all of the weight.
A few of the speakers also asked sexually explicit materials to be removed altogether from the schools, arguing the focus of schools should be on education “not indoctrination.”
Dr. Tracie Omohundro, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the school district did put out a survey asking for feedback after the Nov. 8 meeting and received 25 responses, which varied in opinion on the policy.
Some of the feedback wanted: complete bans of sexually explicit content; not to ban any content because of the impact it would have on children; more serious notification; to have procedures spelled out more; to question why the content even existed within the policy; the definition of sexually explicit (which Omohundro said in itself was sexually explicit) included in the policy rather than only linked in it; and to express concerns about how the policy would impact classroom libraries, curriculum materials and libraries.
Ahead of the meeting, staff has been asked to start collecting information about what sexually explicit content may be in classrooms at this point based on definitions that were clearly spelled out to them, Omohundro said.
“We indicated that if any sexually explicit content occurred in the elementary classroom from a curriculum standpoint or a classroom library standpoint, we did not want to have that in our classrooms and they needed to talk directly with their school principal to discuss what that was, because we didn’t feel like that had a place there in the elementary classroom other than our Family Life curriculum,” Omohundro said.
At the secondary level, teachers and staff were asked to fill out a form identifying content, where it is located and how it can be accessed by students.
“We began all those processes behind the scenes now so that we can make sure that, once the policy is drafted, that we can provide adequate notification to families prior to use of materials,” she said, adding the deadline for identifying the materials is Jan. 2.
Identified materials will be pulled out of the classrooms until the division has the ability to have 30 days notification of those materials existing, Omohundro said. She said the division expects notifications likely couldn’t go out until mid-January, “so don’t anticipate that anything would be available for students before mid-February, but again with parental notification.”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.