Contentious items on the Virginia Beach School Board agenda drew dozens of public speakers in a meeting that stretched almost six hours Tuesday night.
Nearly 80 people signed up to speak, most addressing a proposed policy regarding explicit content in library materials and a resolution regarding transgender students.
The debate around policy 6-65, which deals with school libraries and what is available in them, continued Tuesday. Supporters and opponents of the proposal, which was presented last month, brought up several of the same points. Those opposing the policy said there are already processes in place that allow parents to restrict their children’s access to certain books. They also said the policy used vague language and didn’t clearly define what could be considered sexually explicit.
The proposed policy would create lists of books containing “sexually explicit content” in middle and high school libraries and prohibit such materials from elementary school libraries entirely. School officials have said there are no sexually explicit materials in elementary libraries.
The version presented Tuesday attempted to address some of the concerns previously brought up, including further clarifying the definition of “lewd” and adding that “nothing in this policy is intended to be used to bring criminal charges against School Division employees.”
Many Virginia Beach school librarians spoke out against the policy and the time needed to review all the materials. Some expressed disappointment that no librarians were consulted.
Supporters of the policy noted it will not ban books, it just creates a list of those that contain sexually explicit content so parents can more easily “opt out” of allowing their children to read them.
Catherine Taylor, a school librarian, said, “My fear with the proposed library policy changes is that creating a list will be the first step in censoring books and eliminating items from our school libraries. I worry that books that feature Black characters, LGBT characters or controversies in history will be added to the list next, and eventually removed.”
Rich Pickens, one of the speakers, said he would like to see “pornographic materials” removed from schools, not simply placed on an opt-out list.
“If it’s impossible for the librarians, it’s impossible for the parents,” he said.
Board member Victoria Manning, who led the creation of the changes, has said the goal is to ensure parents know what is available in libraries. During Tuesday’s meeting, she read multiple sexually explicit passages from books that she said are in Virginia Beach middle school libraries. Manning said she’s sure many parents don’t know these kinds of materials are available to their children.
“I believe it’s imperative that we have a policy that notifies parents of what materials are present in the library for their children to access,” she said.
Board members discussed the policy for more than an hour, questioning their attorney on the possibility of lawsuits, arguing about whether the definition of “lewd” was still too vague, and wondering whether library staff would be put in a position to defend books because they are “classics.”
Time was also spent on procedural clarifications, after board member Kimberly Melnyk tried to move for a vote to shelve the policy, despite that the item was listed on the agenda as an informational item, not an action item. Melnyk later withdrew her motion.
Many speakers, including about 20 students, also weighed in on a resolution affirming the division’s “commitment to nondiscrimination and anti-harassment of LGBTQ+ youth and adults.”
The resolution was first brought forth by board member Jessica Owens earlier this month. Owens previously said she drafted the resolution in response to the students who have been consistently speaking out at board meetings since the fall, when Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration put out a draft of model policies regarding the treatment of transgender students in schools. Those policies, if adopted, would require parental consent for students to go by their preferred names and pronouns in school and require them to use restrooms and participate in extracurriculars that aligned with their biological sex.
On Tuesday, Owens presented a revised version of the resolution, which states in part that Virginia Beach schools will “continue to further our efforts to create a welcoming, safe, and inclusive learning environment providing protections for all students and staff regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or on any other characteristic protected by state or federal law.”
The new version also addresses some concerns that were brought forth at the last meeting, including its application to athletics. The new language clarifies that students will not be excluded from any school program or “non-athletic activity” based on gender identity, among other things. High school athletics are regulated by the Virginia High School League.
Natalie Gonzalez, a student speaker who said she has attended board meetings for months, encouraged the board to approve the resolution.
“It is simple, it is concurrent with pre-existing laws, and it is what we have been fighting for for so long,” Gonzalez said. “We need this resolution to assure our peers that discrimination is not something that will ever be allowed in our schools. We appreciate your receptiveness and we want to see more of it.”
Opponents to the resolution say it is redundant, and question why only certain characteristics are singled out, despite other groups of students who also face teasing, bullying and discrimination.
Both the library materials policy and the nondiscrimination resolution will be on the agenda at the board’s next meeting in June.
Nour Habib, email@example.com