Curriculum

School Halts Use of Fictional Book in Which Officer Kills a Black Child

By Rafael Olmeda, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — May 10, 2021 | Corrected: May 11, 2021 5 min read
Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story omitted a closed quotation mark at the end of Nina Justice’s quote.

Fifth graders in at least one Broward County public school were assigned to read a book that critics say casts police officers as racist liars.

Now, School Board members are looking into why the book was used in the first place and whether it should continue to be—at a time of racial reckoning across the country and continued conflicts between some police officers and people of color.

The fictional book “Ghost Boys,” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, tells the story of a Black 12-year-old Chicago boy with a toy weapon who was gunned down by a racist cop, who goes on to lie about the fatal encounter on the witness stand. The shooting is reminiscent of the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, who died in Cleveland under similar circumstances.

“Ghost Boys” was recently used in one 5th grade class at an elementary school in Coral Springs. But it did not go through the district’s normal vetting process, according to a statement from the school district.

“Currently, assignments and readings are on hold until further notice,” said School Board member Lori Alhadeff. “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 5th graders.”

The book was published in 2018, two years before the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, an incident that brought widespread international support to the Black Lives Matter movement. The book was removed from a California school district late last year, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.

The 200-page novel tells the story of a bullied boy named Jerome, who narrates from beyond the grave. In life, he learns that a toy gun could protect him from bullies through intimidation. Playing with the gun at a park gets him killed by a police officer.

The narrator befriends several people throughout the course of the novel, including the living daughter of the cop who killed him and the spirit of Emmett Till, a real-life Black teenager whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi was one of the incidents that fueled the civil rights movement.

Broward School Board members became aware of the book Thursday, when local Fraternal Order of Police Director Paul Kempinski wrote them asking for the book to 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,” Kempinski wrote in his complaint to the School Board. It portrays the offending cop as a racist and ends with his daughter hating him.

“I don’t hate your dad,” the shooting victim tells the cop’s daughter. “You shouldn’t either.”

“He killed you,” she replies.

“He made a mistake.”

“He’s racist,” the cop’s daughter says.

It’s not that simple, the dead boy says, encouraging the girl to talk to her father, to find a way to fix something that “isn’t right.”

The assumption that a police officer who shoots an unarmed Black person is motivated by racism is slanderous, anti-cop propaganda, Kempinski wrote.

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A demonstrator holds a sign along a perimeter fence guarded by law enforcement officers during a protest over Sunday's fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, on April 14, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. At right on the fence is an image of George Floyd.
A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest over the fatal police shooting this month of Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
John Minchillo/AP

Board member Debra Hixon declined to criticize or defend the book, which she said she has not read, until more is known about the content of the book and how it was being used.

“Is it one teacher? Do all 5th graders use it? I don’t know,” she said. “Some saying it’s a great book and others saying it’s offensive. I don’t want to censor people on either side. ... As a society we should just be kind to people in general.”

The school district said the book was “supplemental” and could be considered by teachers addressing the issue of police-community relations. 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.

For years, issues surrounding police use of force have formed a fault line in American politics, often with law enforcement and their supporters on one side and “Black Lives Matter” protesters and civil libertarians on the other.

Kempinski’s letter challenges some of the talking points of the Black Lives Matter movement that are treated as facts in the book. “Did you know Black people are shot by cops two and a half times more than white people?” Kempinski wrote, quoting the book. In reality, he said, the majority of people shot and killed by police are white.

Both statistics are accurate, according to experts. White people make up a majority of the population and the majority of fatal police shootings, according to a Washington Post analysis of incidents since 2015. But the rate of fatal shootings for white people is 15 per million. For Black people, it’s 36 per million.

“That’s the key difference,” said Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness. “You have to be from another planet not to see the differences between how Black people are treated compared to white people.”

Holness said books like ‘Ghost Boys’ can help people understand the Black perspective on a complex social controversy. “To fix an issue, we’re going to have to find some consensus, all of us, because all of us are in this together.”

Kempinski said Friday that the nuance about adjusting for population is not made clear in the book and is not something a 10-year-old could easily grasp. “It’s misleading at best,” he said.

Retired Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Nina Justice, a board member of the National Black Police Officers Association, said she had not read the book and didn’t want to critique it based on a description. But she had advice for bridging the divide between police and communities of color.

“We can say we want the police to be held accountable for misconduct, and we certainly do,” she said. “But we also want our citizens held accountable for conduct they’re not supposed to be engaged in. There’s a responsibility on both ends. Police officers want nothing more than to get home safe and sound.”

Copyright (c) 2021, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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