Pinellas school officials now deny ‘Ruby Bridges’ film was banned

As the story goes viral, the school district changes its explanation and blames the controversy on a miscommunication.
The Pinellas County school district has been in the spotlight this week following a parent complaint that the "Ruby Bridges" movie was inappropriate for second graders at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg.
The Pinellas County school district has been in the spotlight this week following a parent complaint that the "Ruby Bridges" movie was inappropriate for second graders at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 31|Updated March 31

As Pinellas County attracts international attention over a parent complaint about the Disney movie “Ruby Bridges,” district officials have offered shifting stories about the way they responded.

They’ve struggled to explain their initial action — an apparent ban of the film at one school — which would go against long-standing school district policy. Now they are blaming a miscommunication, and some school board members say they are upset at the way district administrators allowed the controversy to play out.

The policy, reauthorized this year by the school board, states that any challenged materials “will remain in use” until a review committee issues its recommendation on what to do with the items.

That’s not how the district first described what happened at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, where a parent, Emily Conklin, claimed the movie about a girl who integrated a New Orleans school teaches students that white people hate Black people.

The vast majority of North Shore second grade parents agreed to let their kids watch the movie, which contains racial slurs and scenes of white parents threatening violence against a 6-year-old Black girl, Ruby Bridges. Conklin and another parent opted out.

Soon after, Conklin filed a formal challenge. A day later, area superintendent Michael Vigue told her via email that North Shore “will no longer be using this video to support the K-5 curriculum.”

Vigue added that he talked with the principal about the need to “update the school’s process for vetting instructional related movies for content relevance, age appropriateness and overall appropriateness of content moving forward.”

As word of the district’s response circulated, criticism followed. And so, too, did changes in the district’s narrative.

Officials pushed back against the notion that the movie was banned, using terms like “pause” and “temporary hold” while stating it remained available for use at other elementary schools — just not North Shore. A few days later, they revised their explanation, saying teachers at North Shore could still use “Ruby Bridges” in lessons, so long as they followed the parental permission procedure required for movies rated PG and higher.

“The original email to the parent from Mike Vigue was incorrect,” superintendent Kevin Hendrick said Friday, explaining that notifications were sent to the school and parent. “We’ve owned that and accepted it.”

The answer to whether North Shore teachers can use the film during the challenge “is unequivocally yes,” Hendrick added. “If it’s not clear, I want to make it clear.”

That’s what they told School Board chairperson Lisa Cane, who had not seen Vigue’s email. She said she understood how the public might be confused over mixed messages coming from the district.

“The school district needs to be faster responding, and I think that the processes need to be followed moving forward that we have put in place,” Cane said.

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She was not alone in that assessment. Board members Caprice Edmond, Eileen Long and Laura Hine also had tough words for the administration’s handling of the situation as it blew up in news reports and social media across the globe.

Long said she’s received several calls and emails from parents and other residents opposing the notion that the movie espouses negative lessons. It depicts history accurately, she said, and children and parents alike can learn from that.

Edmond said she, too, has received emails from North Shore parents sharing passionate support for the lessons they learned with teachers while watching “Ruby Bridges.” She said the district must better communicate when situations like this arise, but also blamed state laws that have emboldened some parents to try to control classes.

“I believe we should be teaching accurate history,” said Edmond, who is Black. She said she watched the movie with her 9-year-old son and found it offered positive messages.

“One parent shouldn’t have the say-so over what other parents can see for their kids,” Edmond said.

When the committee issues its decision, that will be the next game-changer, she added. “If the committee determines it’s not appropriate for second grade, then we have another concern.”

Hine, whose children attend North Shore, said the district had an opportunity to be clear about its values.

“I will be very clear about mine,” she said via email. “I believe in teaching all of American history to include Black history and Ruby Bridges to our children. I believe in developing, investing in, then trusting our teachers as committed professionals to make age-appropriate decisions for their specific classrooms. I support our district’s policy that requires parents to be notified if teacher-selected content might be strong, and allows for an opt-out.”

When challenges come in, Hine continued, the district must inform the public about its rules and adhere to them, and facilitate parent and community feedback.

“I also feel that we must move thoughtfully and more swiftly, though never compromising quality,” she said. “Did we do all of that well in this case or in case of ‘The Bluest Eye’? No, we did not.”

The district banned Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” from all high schools in January after a Palm Harbor parent complained. That move drew criticism, too, as critics accused the district of veering from its policy.

The board’s newest members, Stephanie Meyer and Dawn Peters, stood by the district’s decision on the “Ruby Bridges” movie.

“I believe the district made the correct decision because of the language, to have this film reviewed by the media specialist in which a recommendation will be made for age appropriateness for future viewing at school,” Meyer said on Facebook. “I have always and will continue to support and advocate for parents who raise concerns over content, instructional and supplemental materials shown or used at school.”

The school’s review of the film is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Monday at North Shore Elementary, 200 35th Ave. NE in St. Petersburg. The public can attend but will not be allowed to comment.

Ric Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, said he met with Hendrick on Thursday to let him know that the community he represents seeks strong and dependable leadership.

He said he empathized with Hendrick for being in a tough position, but said Hendrick has to “stiffen up.”

“I tried to impress upon him, sometimes things are just right or wrong, and you can’t stand on the fence,” Davis said.

There’s been plenty of confusion, he added, because of the district’s inconsistent explanations of what has happened and what might occur next.

“They’re trying to change the story on us, but we’re not going to have it,” he said.

Hendrick said he’s got the message.

“In my opinion, we have the same goal — that is to support all children in our district,” he said, citing “deep strategies” like expanding early learning and AVID programs, which focus on preparing students for college and careers.

Former St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who first wrote of this issue in his Weekly Challenger column, also met with Hendrick on Thursday. He said he could give the district the benefit of the doubt over its action and intent.

But the result doesn’t change, he said. “As soon as you pull it out of circulation, you’ve in effect banned it.”

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