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Bill to label graphic sexual content in school libraries dies, but underlying issue lives on

A bill to require the cataloging of visual depictions of graphic sexual content available in school libraries passed the Virginia House, but did not pass the Senate.

Capital News Service

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By Ryan Carpenter

A bill to require the cataloging of visual depictions of graphic sexual content available in school libraries passed the Virginia House, but did not pass the Senate.

Del. Timothy Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 1379, which would have required Virginia K-12 school principals, or a designated person, to start and maintain the school library catalog. The database would have been accessible for parents to view available content and opt their children out if they wanted.

There has been an “unprecedented surge in local and statewide book challenges” in recent years, according to the American Library Association.

EveryLibrary is a political action committee that advocates for libraries. The organization’s bill tracker identifies a total of 79 bills in statehouses across the country that would add a new layer of scrutiny to school libraries and administrators.

Similar parental advisory bills were introduced in the Virginia General Assembly but did not advance. Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, introduced Senate Bill 1463 to require public libraries, including K-12 libraries, to label sexually explicit materials.

 On the other side of the aisle, Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 2136. The bill would have protected public school library materials from removal or restriction based on protected characteristics including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.

Anderson’s proposed measure would have allowed the principal to determine how books were labeled and cataloged. Parents would have the option to restrict their child’s access to the catalog content, and also to request the school review catalog content if they felt it had not been flagged correctly.

“I could opt my child out from having access to those books,” Anderson said. “[I] wasn’t trying to take the books out of the libraries, wasn’t trying to censor them. I was just trying to empower parents to make the best decision for their child.”

His district is dealing with “at least 100 books” he would want cataloged as sexually graphic material, Anderson said.

“We didn’t go after, like, romantic novels,” Anderson said, as he detailed graphic book imagery.

Anderson mentioned six examples of graphic novels during the bill’s second House reading, that he said contain content not suitable for young adults.

One was “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” one of the most-banned books in America, according to an NBC report. The book was first pulled for review from Fairfax County Public Schools in September 2021, according to the same report. The book currently remains in Fairfax High School, according to Anderson. He also mentioned “The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel,” which includes depictions of the rape of young women.

The bill was not an attack on LGBTQ content, according to Anderson, but “graphic sexual content that is deemed harmful to minors.”

“A drawing of two boys holding hands is not sexually graphic, but a drawing of two children engaged in oral sex is, regardless of the theme of that oral sex,” Anderson said.

The bill allowed flagged material to remain in the library catalog, Anderson said. Librarians who accidentally missed a book in “good faith” would not be penalized, he said to House members, although the bill did not explicitly state that.

Parents in Virginia and across the country have voiced their support for this type of involvement, according to Anderson.

“Parents are screaming at their local school boards about this,” Anderson said.

The bill was supported by the Family Foundation and the Pro-Family Women organization, according to the Senate Education and Health committee. The bill faced backlash from the Virginia Education Association, Virginia Library Association, and some school teachers and librarians.

Lia Fisher-Janosz is the librarian at Sharon Elementary School in Alleghany County. She testified to a Senate panel against Anderson’s bill.

 The bill is a product of a political climate where “one person or group” believes they have the right to make choices for all and upend the rights of others, according to Fisher-Janosz.

Librarians should not have to keep tabs on what books each individual child is allowed to check out, Fisher-Janosz stated in an email interview.

“This is a violation of children’s civil rights, which are inalienable and not that different from those possessed by adults,” Fisher-Janosz stated.

Barbara Haas is the librarian at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School in Richmond. She is worried about the logistical consequences of such a bill.

“The difficult part for me if something like that passed would be, you know, having to consult a spreadsheet every time a child wanted to check out a book,” Haas said.

She doesn’t know what the system would look like in practice.

“I’ve never had a parent, you know, specifically say to me they don’t want their child to … read a particular thing,” Haas said.

Haas also is unsure who or what would determine what is sexually explicit content. She pointed out that “what is sexually explicit to one person is not to another.”

“If you don’t want your kid to read it, then that’s a conversation that you need to have with your kid,” Haas said. “I just don’t see how a spreadsheet is going to be helpful.”

The bill died on a 9-6 vote in the Senate Education and Health committee. The move killed the bill, but is not the end of the issue.

“Parents are angry,” Anderson said. “This is really one of the reasons why Glenn Youngkin is the governor and the Republicans have the House.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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