ST. PETERSBURG — On Florida’s dossier of recent academic embarrassments, it’s hard to choose the most stunning gaffe. But the mess over the movie “Ruby Bridges” might top the list.
One parent at North Shore Elementary challenged the 1998 Disney film about a girl who integrated New Orleans schools, claiming certain scenes and slurs might cause students to learn white people hate Black people. That assessment, of course, has less nuance than an “SNL” sketch about more cowbell. Still, a Pinellas County area superintendent told the parent that the school would no longer use the movie.
News reports set off a chaotic arcade game of Public Relations Pong, with the district saying, no, the official made a mistake. The journey culminated Monday in another meeting, another supernova of resources and time that could have been spent focused on graduation rates, early learning programs, bus shortages, helping children cope with gun violence or any number of actual issues.
Some 50 parents, teachers, political types and reporters wove through picturesque brick buildings on North Shore’s campus to reach the cafeteria, flanked by uniformed police. The guests perched on swivel stools meant for the littlest bodies. Under a banner of poofy crepe paper decorations, the review committee raised hands in support of the movie.
Despite the involvement and preparation of so many people, the meeting lasted 18 minutes. Eighteen! The parent who complained didn’t show. Eighteen minutes for a committee to run down questions about educational value and age appropriateness. Eighteen minutes to unanimously decide that this was a big nothingburger. “Ruby Bridges” is, officially, any which way you look at it, allowed to be shown at the school.
Everyone sufficiently exhausted?
This is what lawmakers in Florida have created: a stew pot of vague laws, a distrust in educators and a blanket invitation for parents to stop the presses on anything that makes them antsy. The result: long, tortured meetings all over the state, with many pleading for diversity of thought and defending long-held classics while jumpy officials peck apart definitions of pornography. In Hillsborough County, for example, a complaint over “This Book Is Gay” led to a 2½-hour special meeting and the book being removed from middle schools.
Surely local districts are feeling frustrated, defeated. Surely they would rather spend this time doing their jobs helping students succeed, not being distracted by the equivalent of conspiracists screaming on YouTube.
Because despite the bonkers narrative that public schools are out to turn everyone socialist, parents do have rights. Teachers send home permission slips all the time, giving ample space for families to opt out of lessons, books, movies, field trips, pictures of bodies. Parental rights go so far that formal review policies in Tampa Bay and around Florida often allow a single dissenting parent to challenge materials for thousands of kids. Why?
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Pushing back won’t be pretty for superintendents and board members. They know it’ll only embolden the political organizations trying to thwart public schools. They know it’ll only speed up the campaign to oust them.
But at this point, why not go down swinging?
Why not create policies that make it harder for a single parent to run roughshod over a district? Why not raise the threshold for the number of complaints needed to trigger a review? Why not require evidence that a book or film is causing harm? And when a challenge is so clearly antithetical to facts, why not allow a principal the reasonable right to say no without advancing it?
Which brings us back to “Ruby Bridges.” Walking into the meeting at the elementary school, it was impossible not to think of the agonizing trips real-life Ruby took through the doors of her own school in 1960 — the taunts, the assaults, the threats. It wasn’t that long ago. Bridges is only 68, an active public speaker and author.
The movie is buffed through a Hollywood lens, edges softened for a Disney audience and, yes, digestible for elementary students. Everyone should watch the crisp 90-minute tale streaming on Disney Plus. Engage in it with your kids. Talk about why we can’t let such intolerance happen again, especially if that talk means getting a little uncomfortable.
The movie shows the girl walking through angry white mobs, of course, because that is what happened.
The movie shows people of various races working through their emotions and internalized biases.
The movie shows schoolchildren growing tired of domineering parents mucking up their education.
And the movie spends a valuable amount of time with the camera trained on people on the wrong side of history, clinging to decorum and tradition, trying to keep peace when everything familiar exploded. That seemed easier at the time.