The Disney movie “Ruby Bridges,” which tells the tale of a 6-year-old who integrated New Orleans schools in the 1960s, has been a staple of Pinellas County Black History Month lessons for years.
It never caused a stir until this year, as parents across Florida exert increased powers to question what children can see and read in schools.
A North Shore Elementary parent who would not allow her child to watch the film when it was shown in early March later complained that it wasn’t appropriate for second graders. In a formal challenge dated March 6, Emily Conklin wrote that the use of racial slurs and scenes of white people threatening Ruby as she entered a school might result in students learning that white people hate Black people.
Pinellas school officials responded by banning the movie from use by all students at the St. Petersburg school until a review committee can assess it. While it remains available for other schools to use, the step is drawing strong opposition.
A countywide group that represents the interests of Black children in Pinellas public schools has sent an open letter to the community questioning why one parent’s complaint resulted in actions that affect all families at North Shore.
”Many from historically marginalized communities are asking whether this so-called integrated education system in Pinellas County can even serve the diverse community fairly and equitably,” wrote Ric Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students. The group has been active for years, often working with school district officials and at times battling them in court.
The controversy follows a heated dispute earlier this year over the banning of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from all district high schools after one parent complained about a two-page rape scene. District officials cited new state law and a rule telling them to “err on the side of caution” when considering whether books should be used in classrooms and libraries.
The state’s guidelines, which some have called vague, have led to book challenges and bans by the dozens throughout Florida.
“The (Pinellas) district’s leadership appears to fear the potential consequences of not acting in the way they have on these two decisions,” Davis wrote in the open letter. “This approach to challenging times in education in our state raises serious questions about Superintendent (Kevin) Hendrick’s leadership.”
Davis acknowledged the political climate in Florida has educators second-guessing themselves about what materials to use in classes. Lawmakers have made clear that they don’t want books, movies or lessons about race to create student discomfort, though they also have said they want facts presented honestly.
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The scenes depicted in “Ruby Bridges,” released in 1998, are historically accurate, Davis said, adding that the truth will not change because someone doesn’t like it.
“At the highest level of decision-making in the district, they have to have more sensitivity to the diversity of the community they serve, and not overreact because one white person objected to something,” he said, quickly adding that they should not overreact to a Black person’s objection, either.
“At the end of the day, we’re one total community and we have to figure out how we work together to make decisions that serve everyone.”
Enrollment in Pinellas district schools is 51% white, 20% Hispanic, 19% Black and 4% Asian, according to state enrollment records. The remaining 6% are students of Native American or Pacific Islander descent or are classified as belonging to two or more races.
North Shore Elementary is about 57% white, 24% Black and 12% Hispanic.
Former St. Petersburg police Chief and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis first raised the issue of the film’s removal in a March 19 column in The Weekly Challenger. He, too, criticized the district’s action, calling it a ban, and contended that the policy allowing for such decisions needs more clarity.
He noted that a single complaint can lead to a book or movie being removed pending review, yet the policy sets forth no time frame for considering the challenge and rendering a decision. In the case of “The Bluest Eye,” he said, that has meant censoring the novel for months.
If the decision ultimately is to keep the material, Davis said, “then look at the damage that has been done.”
Davis also questioned the validity of the challenge. Conklin, development director for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, has asked for “Ruby Bridges” to be removed from the district’s list of approved films for elementary schools.
Conklin was one of two North Shore parents who declined to let their children watch the movie after the school sent out permission slips, including a link to a trailer, two weeks before showing the film to classes. She did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
“Think about it. A 6-year-old girl (Ruby Bridges) can go to school every day with armed guards, but second graders can’t learn about it?” Davis said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
School board member Eileen Long has complained about the district’s attempts to ban “The Bluest Eye” and “Ruby Bridges,” and has asked for a list of other materials that might have been pulled during the year. She said she’s getting few answers.
“I agree with Dr. (Ric) Davis,” she said. “We’re going backward.”
The Florida Freedom to Read Project also has its eye on the district. Local parent Raegan Miller, a leader in the statewide organization, offered support for getting “Ruby Bridges” back into full circulation.
“It is distressing to me that one parent has, again, been able to have a resource removed from our schools when the vast majority of parents consented to their children seeing the film,” Miller said.
The district has not yet scheduled times to review either “Ruby Bridges” or “The Bluest Eye.”
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