An assistant principal in Mississippi is out of a job after reading a children’s book to second-graders over Zoom. Toby Price told PEN America that the book, I Need a New Butt, by Dawn McMillan, is “fun” and “silly.” In an email interview, he told the advocacy group that “I firmly believe reluctant readers need to be allowed to see that books can be fun and silly. Once they see books can be fun, they’ll stick around to discover all the other wonderful things books can be.” The Hinds County School District disagreed. Officials placed Price on administrative leave about an hour after the event, the Washington Post reported. Two days later, he was fired.
A termination letter provides some insight into the school district’s reasoning. In it, superintendent Delesicia Martin accused Price of reading “inappropriate” words like “fart,” and said that the book included equally “inappropriate” imagery, like an illustration of the protagonist’s naked butt. “Your actions showed a lack of professionalism and impaired judgment,” Martin wrote. “Based on these incidents, the district can no longer trust you to complete your job responsibilities.” Price, who has special-needs children, is now trying to raise money to fund an attorney and pay for medications.
Price’s situation is extreme, but it may soon become common. The educator finds himself on the business end of a nationwide assault on academic freedom in public schools. From the teaching of critical race theory to LGBT content in classrooms, conservatives are training their attention — and movement man power — on education, to the detriment of teachers like Price. Shortly after Tennessee legislators passed a bill banning the teaching of critical race theory, a school district in the eastern region of the state fired teacher Matthew Hawn for presenting lessons on racism in his contemporary-issues course. At a hearing, a local school official criticized Hawn for assigning an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, saying that “maybe a more conservative stance would have been an appropriate alternative.”
Martin, in Mississippi, didn’t cite politics in her termination of Price. Yet it remains true that educators across the country are facing a form of scrutiny that transcends simple transparency. Educators were frequent targets of the right, well before activists like Christopher Rufo manufactured a panic over the way schools teach students about racism or LGBT issues. Now it appears that educators have little room to introduce students to a full range of ideas and concepts — a critical part of any well-rounded education. If Price’s “fun, silly” book proved too spicy for Hinds County, educators elsewhere must be on notice. That’s bad for students and teachers alike.
Price’s story may not be over. He’s entitled to a hearing, and on Friday, news of his firing had begun to generate significant outrage on social media. But if Hawn’s case says anything about the headwinds educators now face, Price may have a difficult time winning back his job. His livelihood is at stake, and all over a children’s book about butts.
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