Amidst a record-setting amount of school books being banned over racial or sexually explicit content in the last year nationwide, Loudoun County Public Schools is updating how they communicate with parents about controversial books and instructional materials.
The school board’s Curriculum & Instruction Committee on Thursday approved an updated policy on “controversial and sensitive” curriculum standards. The changes are expected to be voted on by the full board by year’s end.
The policy defines controversial topics as those involving “academic, social, political or ideological matters” about which students may have opposing viewpoints and multiple perspectives. Sensitive topics are defined as “resolved historical facts” within the curriculum that can lead to sensitive conversations.
The policy calls for having civil discussions that promote “intellectual integrity” and preserve “personal dignity.” It said efforts should be made to provide clarity and reduce bias.
The updated portion of the policy calls for informing parents and students of learning goals before discussing controversial or sensitive content and says parents and school counselors should be informed if students have strong reactions to the content. In addition, it says school leadership should be consulted before inviting guest speakers on controversial or sensitive topics and it encourages parents to contact teachers if they have concerns or questions.
The committee also discussed a Virginia Department of Education-mandated update to policies regarding parental notice of sexually explicit content that must be completed by Jan. 1 when the state draft policy takes effect. The policy requires giving a 30-day notice to parents to review materials with sexually explicit content before their use.
It also requires staff to review the 90,000 books in LCPS libraries. Neil C. Slevin, executive director of teaching and learning, told committee members the district may have to hire more people to make the deadline for reviewing materials. In the 2021-22 school year, just eight of the books were challenged over content and only one was removed.
Slevin said the current local policy and the draft policy don’t allow censoring books or other materials or designating them as sexually explicit based solely on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the characters in the books or materials. He emphasized the district provides substitute materials for students whose parents object to the content and he said the district is working to increase awareness and communication about materials through school librarian outreach.
“We have heard from the community and we have begun to take steps to expand our partnership to families as it relates to school libraries,” he said. “We have and continue to emphasize it’s important for our teachers to practice effective family engagement practices in communicating about what’s being read in the classroom.”
The change comes as right-wing parents around Virginia and the county demand books and teaching they don’t approve of be banned from schools. According to PEN America, an anti-censorship group, 1,145 books were banned in school districts nationwide between July of last year and March of this year. The number is an all-time high.
Critics include Clint Thomas, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit by 11 LCPS parents objecting to how race and sex is taught in the district.
“As a parent, I’m really offended that we would even have to have a policy on how to administer and use sexually explicit content in our schools,” Thomas told committee members. “Why in the world do we have sexually explicit content in our schools to being with?”
Thomas also questioned why teaching about fetishism, sadomasochistic abuse and urophilia — a fetish involving urine — is allowed. But none of those things are taught in the district, according to an email from the LCPS Instructional Committee. “There is no portion of the Virginia or LCPS curriculum that includes learning about those terms, nor are we aware of any resources that would meet that particular standard for identification,” an email from the district said.
Current school district policy allows parents to review all instructional materials that include sexually explicit content. It says, “schools shall defer to parents to determine whether the use of sexually explicit content in instructional materials, if any, is appropriate for their child.”
But Thomas wants parents to be able to essentially micromanage what materials are used by having the right to have their children opt in rather than opt out. In an interview after the meeting, Thomas said he’s not out to ban classic and popular books.
As examples of books he wouldn’t ban, Thomas cited Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which includes discussion of forced marriage of women, J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” which includes a teacher trying to molest the teenaged protagonist of the book, and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which America is taken over by a radical Christian organization called the “Sons of Jacob” who rape women and force them to give birth.
Thomas said he only wants books banned that have no “artistic, political, or scientific value” for students or “prurient” material.
“No one’s here to debate classics,” said Thomas who noted he was formerly treasurer of the Loudoun Literacy Council. “We’re talking about books [available in the district] that have been read before the school board. Things that glorify sex work, things that glorify anal sex, [oral sex] and pedophilia.”
Thomas, who has two daughters in LCPS and three who’ve graduated, said he’s not trying to dictate what other parents’ children can be taught, but questioned why sex education is taught in schools.
“We need to get back to academics and leave it to the parents to teach the beauty of sexuality,” said Thomas who also called for banning rainbow flags on school property. “Why would you give a fellow adult the right to teach about sexuality? That’s called grooming and abuse.”
Also critical of LCPS was Michael Rivera, a Leesburg district school board candidate with three children in LCPS. He said parents should be part of the library materials review process.
“You people think we’re just nobodies [but] we’re not going away,” he said. “We’re going to reform this school system and strive for excellence.”
But to speaker Erika Weiskopf, the sexually explicit content policy is a solution in search of a problem. Weiskopf — whose mother Andrea Weiskopf has taught at LCPS since 2006 — noted parents can review all materials, most of which are online. She stressed that parents who find materials objectionable can have alternative materials taught to their children.
“This policy is a pretense to strip books with diverse characters and diverse authors from our school system,” said Weiskopf who read a written statement from her mother who couldn’t attend the meeting. “Additionally, requiring teachers to give 30 days notice before using material is an insult to teachers who’ve been licensed and endorsed by this very commonwealth.”
After the meeting, Erika Weiskopf decried the tactics of some critics of LCPS. She said her mother had been subjected to online harassment, including being told to commit suicide, after video of her speaking in favor of the LCPS curriculum was aired on Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson’s show.
The younger Weiskopf stressed the need for context in reviewing books. She said books that discuss sexual abuse can help children better understand it and prevent them from being victims.
“Not having the language, that’s what disempowers kids,” she said. “These things are happening whether or not they read these books. Why shouldn’t they read them in an environment where teachers are supporting them?”