Florida School Board Shelves Children's Novel About a Boy Killed by Police

A South Florida school board has forced one fifth-grade classroom to halt the use of a novel after receiving complaints that the novel is anti-police "propaganda."

The Sun-Sentinel reports that the book in question is Jewell Parker Rhodes's "Ghost Boys." A fifth-grade classroom in Coral Springs, Florida, was studying the book together before the Broward County school board ordered the classroom to immediately cancel all readings and assignments related to the book.

The novel is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Jerome, a Black child who was fatally shot after a police officer mistook his toy gun for a real one, according to the book blurb found on Goodreads. Jerome's ghost befriends the ghost of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, who helps Jerome understand the circumstances surrounding his death. In the story, Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer responsible for Jerome's death.

The book was no doubt chosen for its timeliness in the greater context of American politics. But a teacher cannot decide what to teach without first consulting the school board and seeking approval through the appropriate channels. Says the Sun-Sentinel:

"The teachers who assigned the book did not follow the correct protocol for such books, which included determining whether 'Ghost Boys' was appropriate for 10-year-old readers and informing parents about the potential for controversy, giving them a chance to opt-out for an alternative assignment, according to the school district."

In a statement to the Sun-Sentinel, Broward County board member Lori Alhadeff said: "The timing of whether (or whether not) to implement this subject matter must include parents and ultimately be a decision by the parents of each student. I do not feel 'Ghost Boys' is appropriate for fifth graders."

The novel was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2018, an imprint of Hachette Book Group that has been responsible for publishing children's literature since 1926. And according to LitHub, Common Sense Media — "a nonprofit group that rates content based on children's development" — deemed the novel appropriate for kids 10+ years of age. Though all signs point to the book being age-appropriate, it is unclear if the school board will move to approve the book or not.

According to the Sun-Sentinel, the book was pulled from the curriculum after local Fraternal Order of Police Director Paul Kempinski wrote an open letter to the school board, asking that the book be removed.

"This book convinces its reader — the children of our community — that police officers regularly lie as they routinely murder children, while painting police officers as racists," said Kempinski in his letter. "What the book does not delve into is the viewpoint of anyone else but Jerome. When the officer testifies in court, Jerome quickly points out to the reader that the police officer is lying.

"Our members feel that this book is propaganda that pushes inaccurate and absurd stereotypes of police officers in America," Kempinski continued.

It appears that the biggest problem for Kempinski comes with the book's use of "real-life figures and supposed real-life statistics," which he says are "inaccurate," and "outright lies." The nuance surrounding the statistics in the novel, which discuss the rate at which Black people are shot by police in comparison to white people, is "not something a 10-year-old could easily grasp," Kempinski told the Sun-Sentinel.

In his opinion, the novel's figures are "misleading at best."

The controversy, of course, brings up the greater conversation surrounding censorship. According to ClickOrlando, "Ghost Boys" was also removed from a California school district late last year. In response to that decision, the National Coalition Against Censorship said in a statement:

"The purpose of the classroom is to address varying viewpoints, provide context, and encourage discussion. Teachers must be allowed to do their jobs. And no individual parent has the right to determine what every student in a classroom, school or district can learn."

In response to the book being removed from the classroom in Florida, Broward County school board member Debra Hixon told the Sun-Sentinel this: "Is it one teacher? Do all fifth graders use it? I don't know. Some [are] saying it's a great book and others [are] saying it's offensive. I don't want to censor people on either side."

Newsweek has not seen reports that detail how the novel was being discussed within the Coral Springs classroom.

"Ghost Boys" is not the first book to be removed from schools, and it most certainly won't be the last. Other classic books such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Of Mice and Men" have also been banned from school districts.