A Classroom Crisis? The Role of Parents in Education


Annabelle Rosse, Sarah Prillaman, Avery Smith and Rachel Schlueter, Editor-in-Chief, Staff Writer, Staff Writer and Editor-in-Chief

You may expect to see lots of things at the iconically uneventful Thursday night Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) school board meetings: a costly budget proposal, domino-effect yawns, an audience who looks like they’d much rather be at home. However, one would not be able to anticipate seeing multiple enlarged images of sexual imagery displayed prominently in the middle of the board floor. 

This is what happened on Sept. 23, when Fairfax High School parent Stacy Langton stood in front of the FCPS board and sparked the debate over potentially banning two books: “Gender Queer,” Maia Kobabe’s illustrated coming-of-age memoir as a non-binary teenager and “Lawn Boy,” a semi-autographical novel by Jonathan Evison that examines race and class stereotypes. Langton demonstrated her fiery opposition to the texts by brandishing blown-up images of graphic sexual imagery from “Gender Queer” during her speech.

Langton, though admitting to never having read either book, claimed that “Gender Queer” contained pedophilia and therefore should not be on shelves in FCPS libraries. Other parents and teachers have argued that there is no evidence of pedophilia in the book. Nonetheless, Langton’s zealous speech riled up parents at the school board meeting, creating such a significant disruption that school board members cut off Langton’s mic. Her complaints are a reflection of the growing nation-wide debate over how much control parents should have over their children’s education in regard to topics many parents view as “controversial,” such as vaccine mandates and “critical race theory.” 

Banned Books

The controversy over the potential book bannings in FCPS has reignited the argument over how much influence parents should have on their children’s education. Many educators believe schools should be a place of “free will” in which students are provided with opportunities to select books that interest them, and at home, parents can make decisions as to whether to support their child’s choices, as Madison head librarian Alice Pleasants has said.

“The thing is, if a student checks out a book, and takes it home, and the parents are uncomfortable with the student reading that book, you just have to return it, that’s all it is,” Alice Pleasants, Madison’s head librarian said. “It’s up to the parent to handle that within the family.”

However, others, including some parents, advocate for censorship of controversial topics and imagery in schools, and even though parents themselves are not directly affected by the materials offered in high schools, they are often the loudest voices in the conversation. In fact, nine out of every ten book challenges are initiated by parents, according to the American Library Association. 

Recently, these challenges have put “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” in the spotlight. FCPS pulled both books from shelves and sent them off for official review in what is known as a “book challenge,” where the two works were assessed on their suitability for high school environments by two committees consisting of parents, teachers and students, according to an official county statement. These materials were not officially banned from schools, like many media outlets have suggested, but were under thorough review. However, many parents, even though they were not on the select committee, were insistent upon having their opinions heard.

And though the books in question are only available to older students in high school libraries, outspoken opponents of these books, including Langton and former-FCPS teacher Adrienne Henzel, have labeled these books as “pornographic” and “homo-erotic” material that is dangerous to young children. Both books contain some form of graphic sexual content, which is actually rather common in many young-adult novels, especially those targeted to older audiences, prompting this specific controversy. These scenes, however, are few and far between. Teenagers are not reading “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” for their sex and romance. The former is seen as an accurate depiction of growing up whilst questioning your gender identity. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially those struggling with the concept of gender themselves, find solace in this representation. 

“I used to feel guilty for being nonbinary, but when I read Gender Queer, it was like, ‘Whoa—it’s not just me. I’m not alone.’ Lizzy Yi (’25) said. “It clicked. It felt reassuring.”

Proponents of increased LGBTQ+ representation believe relatable portrayals should not suffer the blunt end of the stick simply because of the topics they discuss. They believe it is up to parents, outside of the school setting, to decide and supervise what their children read, not individual libraries. 

“Books allow you to build empathy for other people, and when we start pulling these books off the shelves, then we’re narrowing our world,” Pleasants said. “And it feels like the LGBT community is being hit hard nationwide with these book challenges.”

Robert Rigby., a Latin teacher at West Potomac High School and co-president of FCPS Pride, a social welfare organization advocating for the FCPS LGBTQ+ community, echoed his support of this kind of representation.

“To ensure that our schools are safe and welcoming for everyone, we need books that serve as windows into the existence of other people, including LGBTQIA+ students,” Rigby said. 

On Nov. 23, FCPS deemed the books to be “appropriate for high school readers,” according to an official county statement. FCPS said neither book “depicts or describes pedophilia,” contrary to Langton’s claims. In a win for diversity and inclusion, the novels will be returned to shelves. Both committees conducted extensive reviews and discussions into the “potential merits and concerns” over the challenged materials over the past two months. In the end, a unanimous vote reinstated the books’ presence back into FCPS libraries. Opponents of the decision have accused the county of “hav[ing] no intention of doing the right thing,” while proponents have applauded the board’s decision.

“FCPS is steering in a more equitable, inclusive direction,” Rigby said.

Langton intends to appeal the board’s decision.

Vaccine Mandates

This type of parental opposition has also been demonstrated elsewhere, such as with mask and vaccine mandates. On Aug. 30, FCPS announced that by Nov. 8 it would require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination for any student participating in Virginia High School League (VHSL) winter and spring sports for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year.

“Vaccinating our students is a critical step in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and minimizing any disruption to learning,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in the announcement.  

Students can still be granted exemptions to the requirement if they choose not to be vaccinated due to a health condition or religious belief. Unvaccinated students who are 12-15 years old are not able to participate in team activities unless they provide a weekly negative COVID-19 test. Regardless of exemptions, a high number of students are vaccinated. According to data from Fairfax County, 86% of residents ages 12-17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Despite this figure, the vaccine mandate has still caused controversy among some groups of parents.

Dozens of parents protesting outside of the Oct. 7 school board meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School held signs demonstrating their opposition. One sign read, “Let parents call the SHOTS,” while others read, “Stop the masks” and “No mandatory vax, natural immunity is real.”

Many students at Madison, however, are in favor of the mandate. A survey conducted at Madison showed that 85.2% of students are in favor of the athletic vaccine requirement.

“The vaccine has proven to be extremely effective, extremely safe, and it protects not just you, but those who surround you as well,” Corbin Welch (’23) said. “It is our duty to protect those around us from an extremely contagious, potentially deadly disease. The vaccine is free, effective and important for the safety of us and others.” 

Critical Race Theory

In addition to book bannings and COVID-19 mask mandates, critical race theory (CRT) is one of the most widely disputed topics surrounding school curriculum. The question of what should be taught in schools is one that affects the lives of students all over Virginia and the rest of the nation. 

CRT is the theory that race is a social and cultural construct, created to oppress people of color. This theory was developed in the 1970s by a group of Harvard Law professors who devoted the majority of their careers to understanding and advocating for civil rights. As with many topics related to race, CRT has been extremely controversial, especially in schools. However, despite the controversy surrounding it, critical race theory is not actually taught in FCPS schools.

“If it is [being taught], I don’t know about it,” history teacher Daniel Blanchet said. “It’s not in our curriculum standards and is not in Madison’s curriculum standards. It’s not in the county’s curriculum standards.”

The criticism around this topic stems from people incorrectly labeling CRT as systemic racism education, which some teachers do incorporate into their classrooms. Blanchet says that teaching and understanding systemic racism is an obligation he, students and Americans have to understand the totality of the country’s history, both the positive and negative aspects. When students understand these complexities, they can start to think critically, consider lasting effects of disproportionately harmful policies and apply their knowledge to current events. However, teaching this can be difficult when people do not know how to distinguish a legal theory from an established curriculum. 

“Systemic racism is something that’s a part of American history and a part of contemporary issues,” Blanchet said. “If we don’t teach it, then we’re doing a disservice. But critical race theory is a wholly different thing.”

The outrage against CRT has grown to oppose more than systemic racism education. Conservatives have used CRT to criticize diversity and inclusion efforts. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization, blames CRT for the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ+ clubs in schools, diversity training, California’s recent ethnic studies model curriculum, free-speech debate in colleges and disciplinary alternatives in schools. 

One of the most recent and prominent conservatives to use CRT for political gain is Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin. Part of his campaign strategy was the promise to ban CRT from schools, giving parents the opportunity to take on a larger role in determining what their children learn. However, CRT is not taught in Virginia schools. 

“It’s easy for [Youngkin] to fulfill this campaign promise because he doesn’t actually have to do anything to achieve it,” Blanchet said. “It’s easy to score political victories when you create a problem that doesn’t exist and then solve it. Glenn Youngkin may not be doing that necessarily, but that’s what a lot of politicians do.”

Although the absence of CRT from Virginia schools is not likely to change, the level of parental involvement is likely to, which can have a range of effects on both students and teachers. Opponents to Youngkin believe that this sort of parental involvement will result in vastly different lessons from county to county and even from school to school, as parents from different regions fight for different topics to be taught. This lack of uniformity could put students in certain districts behind those in others.

Parental involvement surrounding CRT and other inclusion efforts has started to increase across the country. In a Connecticut school district, school board members debated until 2 a.m. on whether to endorse a statement that promised to work towards committing to equity and diversity. The statement was only agreed upon after, against district superintendent Rydell Harrison’s wishes, the words “equity” and “systemic” were removed. 

The conversation of race-related school curriculum is a complicated issue. However, with the voices of students, teachers and parents working together, there is hope that solutions can be found which benefit everyone involved. This is the mission of Vera Nguyen’s (’22) “Don’t Add & Stir,” an anti-racism education website. 

Nguyen created the website as a forum for students, teachers and parents to connect and educate each other through their personal experiences within the Virginia education system. In her work, Nguyen has found that in school systems, a hierarchy of opinions exist, with parents usually having the most prominent platform to express their concerns, sometimes above students and teachers. Nguyen and her website team are trying to address this by amplifying the student voice when developing policies that concern equity and diversity. 

“We, students, need a voice in this as well because we’re the ones being affected by it,” Nguyen said. 

While Nguyen believes that students should play a significant role in the education system, she acknowledges that parents as well should have a say. 

“[Parents] need to know what their kids are learning,” Nguyen said. “But at the same time, there’s a standard that needs to happen because their actions can affect other students. They should have a voice but so should students and teachers.”

Teachers echo these ideas; Blanchet is open to parental input and enjoys when parents play an active role in their kids’ school lives, as long as they are respectful when communicating. 

“Parental involvement is beneficial, as long as they’re coming at it with the right intentions,” Blanchet said. “If they’re just going to attack us as professionals because they think that they know better, then they have opportunities to homeschool their kids or put their kids in private schools.”

Going forward, Blanchet wants to see more parental involvement when kids are doing both well and poorly in the classroom. He hopes that the relationship between students and teachers will continue to strengthen in order to foster an environment that ultimately benefits everyone. 

“If [parents] truly want the school to be a better, more inclusive community that treats students with fairness and dignity, then I welcome it,” Blanchet said.