A General Assembly bill provoked by Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel “Beloved” would require schools to notify parents of instructional material “that includes sexually explicit content.” The state Senate may vote on it today.
The measure by Del. Steve Landes, HB516, stems from a 2013 challenge to “Beloved” by a Fairfax County parent whose son said it was gross and hard to handle and gave him night terrors, according to reports in The Washington Post.
The bill passed the House unanimously in an uncontested block of bills, but senators debated it in a committee last week. Proponents say it simply allows parents a say in their child’s education. Opponents say it could create a chilling effect on teachers, who may avoid valuable books because of the hassle.
“Beloved,” published in 1987, is ranked No. 26 on the top 100 banned and challenged books for 2000 to 2009, according to the American Library Association. At least half of such books include diverse content, such as including non-white or gay characters.
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit opposed to censorship, says “Beloved” is “a classic that will leave a lasting imprint on readers” but has been challenged for violence and sexuality. The story is about an escaped slave who kills her 2-year-old daughter rather than return her to slavery.
“It features a gritty infanticide, racial language, horrific sexual assaults, and even references to sex with animals,” Common Sense Media reports. “But teens are mature enough to handle the challenges this book presents. At this age they can decide for themselves what they think about disturbing personal and historical events. ‘Beloved’ is a beautiful, powerful book that will help all readers learn about the horrors of slavery – and leave them thinking about what it means to be a strong, heroic, or moral person.”
The bill before the Senate doesn’t stop the teaching of “Beloved” or any other book. But it requires the state Department of Education to create a policy requiring teachers to notify parents of sexually explicit content, as defined by the state board, so parents can review it or request alternate material for their child.
The conservative Virginia group Family Foundation said liberal lawmakers believe teachers know better than parents what children should read.
“A plain reading of the bill shows it simply requires the Board of Education to come up with a method by which parents can be notified and choose (if) that book selection best suits their children,” President Victoria Cobb said in a blog post.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said in a Facebook post that the bill has a lot of problems, “namely, that a lot of great literature includes sex and violence. Like the Bible.”
Petersen plans to speak against the bill when it comes to the Senate floor.
“We need to keep kids reading actual books. (And stay off the phones!),” Petersen wrote in his post.
James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the Freedom to Read Foundation in Chicago, said the legislation could lead to good works of literature being defined by a label.
After going back and forth with parents about alternate books, a teacher may decide, “That’s a lot of work. I’m just going to take that book out of the curriculum,” he said.
Among Hampton Roads lawmakers, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomac, voted for the bill when it passed the Senate Education and Health Committee last week. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, voted against it.
Secretary of Education Anne Holton has not taken a public position on the bill.
This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com