VA education laws over sexually explicit material, mandatory sexual assault reporting going into effect

(The Center Square) – Two new Virginia education laws are going into effect July 1 – one will give parents the authority to opt children out of sexually explicit coursework and the other will reinstate some requirements for teachers to report student misdemeanors to police.

Under the new law from Senate Bill 656, schools will need to notify parents of sexually explicit material in any coursework and directly identify the material and the explicit subjects. Parents will have the authority to opt their children out of such assignments and teachers would need to provide alternative assignments for those children.

The bill does not give parents the ability to ban any material or force alternative assignments on the entire classroom.

Sexually explicit material is defined as any description or visual representation of a lewd exhibition of nudity, a depiction of sexual excitement or conduct, as well as bestiality, sadomasochistic abuse, coprophilia, urophilia or fetishism. The Department of Education is required to provide school boards with more specific guidance by the end of the month and school boards will need to adopt policies that conform to the law by the start of 2023.

Another law from House Bill 4 will reinstitute mandatory reporting of certain misdemeanors committed by students. School officials will need to report sexual assault, stalking and threats against the school or school personel. There is an exception for special needs students who make threats, which gives school officials discretion on whether they report those threats to the police.

These mandatory reporting requirements had previously been part of the Virginia code, until they were removed in 2020. That decision came under scrutiny when a male student wearing a dress was accused of sexually assaulting a female student in a Loudoun County Public School bathroom and was transferred to another school where he was accused of sexually assaulting another female student. He was convicted in both cases. Although the school later stated that they did report the crime to police, schools would have been protected under the previous law if they had not, because both crimes were misdemeanors.

School officials will still have discretion in reporting other misdemeanors, such as alcohol, marijuana or drug misdemeanors and misdemeanor assaults that are not sexual in nature. Although officials can report them to police, they are not required to do so. Officials must report all felony offenses, which continues the current standard on such offenses.

Both bills were sponsored by Republican lawmakers. The bill that gives parents more authority over sexually explicit content faced opposition from most Democratic lawmakers, but a few Senate Democrats joined Republicans to ensure the bill’s passage. The mandatory reporting law received more bipartisan support, but faced opposition from more than half of the state’s Democratic lawmakers.

During the 2021 gubernatorial election, then-candidate Glenn Youngkin campaigned on a stronger parental role in public education. As governor, Youngkin supported both bills. His opponent Terry McAuliffe, who had previously served as governor, vetoed legislation similar to Senate Bill 656.