After discovering what she considers over-the-top, sexually explicit material in her children’s high school reading assignments, a Northern Virginia mother is lobbying for greater transparency inside the classroom.
“This happened four years ago, when I first became aware of the books that were being taught in schools,” Laura Murphy, a mother of four in Fairfax, Va., told The Daily Signal. “As I read it, I was disturbed by some of the content.”
The content, Murphy said, was brought to her attention by her son, who at the time was a sophomore. “He said he couldn’t read it anymore.”
Then, her older son—who at the time was a senior—showed Murphy his reading material.
“My jaw hit the ground,” Murphy said.
Since learning of her children’s reading materials, Murphy has been advocating for public school teachers to better inform parents of reading materials that contain sexually explicit content. She’s also advocating for the right to “opt out” of such content.
After “delays” with the Virginia Board of Education, Murphy took her fight to the legislative level, where she helped advance legislation that would require public schools to notify parents of sexually explicit material in the classroom; allow parents to review that content; and, upon request, grant them the ability to opt out.
On Monday morning, the bill passed the Education Committee 22-0, with the full support of both Democrats and Republicans.
“If you can opt out in the health classroom, and if you can opt out in the biology classroom, shouldn’t you be also allowed to opt out in the English classroom?” Murphy asked. “We’re talking about consistency.”
Some of the books assigned to her children, Murphy said, referenced sensitive topics such as “bestiality,” “sex,” and “rape.” Two books in particular—written by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison—caught Murphy’s attention: “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye.”
One passage taken from “The Bluest Eye” reads:
He must enter her surreptitiously, lifting the hem of her nightgown only to her navel. He must rest his weight on his elbows when they make love, to avoid hurting her breasts…When she senses some spasm about to grip him, she will make rapid movements with her hips, press her fingernails into his back, suck in her breath, and pretend she is having an orgasm. She might wonder again, for the six hundredth time, what it would be like to have that feeling while her husband’s penis is inside her.
Another, taken from “Beloved,” reads:
All in their twenties, minus women, fucking cows, dreaming of rape, thrashing on pallets, rubbing their thighs and waiting for the new girl.
Murphy said the content was so explicit that four years ago, when she tried to email “verbatim quotations” to the Virginia Board of Education, the government’s firewall blocked her email from being delivered because they were obscene and potentially harmful to children.
“You can’t make it up,” Murphy said.
Then, when another parent copied and pasted passages onto the comment section of the Virginia Town Hall website, Murphy said the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, which oversees the comments, made the decision to remove the text due to its explicit nature.
“They removed it because it was obscene and could be harmful to children,” she said. “How ironic.”
But some education experts believe that government intervention is unnecessary.
“Of course parents have the right, and even the obligation, to participate in their children’s education,” said James LaRue, Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in Chicago, Ill. “But do we need a new law to accomplish that? Can’t parents take a look at the curriculum on back-to-school night? Can’t they talk to the teachers? Can’t they ask their sons or daughters what they’re talking about in class, and what they think about it? It could be the start of a wonderful conversation.”
Murphy acknowledged that many teachers in Fairfax County, including some of her sons’ teachers, already inform students and parents of “sensitive” material.
“Some have even gone so far as to provide warnings on their syllabus,” she said.
However, “there are some teachers who refuse to identify books containing sexually explicit material because they believe that parents should let the teachers teach and that notifying parents of books with sexually explicit content will ultimately lead to censorship.”
For that reason, Murphy said, the legislative step was necessary.
If the bill makes it through the full Virginia legislature and schools are required to inform parents of sexually explicit content, critics raised concerns over the practicality of the measure.
“’Sexually explicit’ means what, and who decides?” LaRue said, adding:
The public cases that follow such legislation tend to center on books generally acknowledged to be genuine works of literature—Beloved, by Toni Morrison, for instance, and other works by major and acclaimed authors. And just incidentally, many of the most frequently challenged books tend to be by and about people of color. What are we protecting our children from, exactly?
Murphy acknowledged the concern but said she “has faith” that teachers can take on the burden.
“I know books aren’t rated, but if the Motion Picture Association and the gaming industry—if they can all identify profanity, or sexual explicitness, or drug use—I have a lot of faith in our teachers here in the Commonwealth, that they can do the same.”