Disney’s ‘Ruby Bridges’ removed from St. Pete school, bringing outrage

Orlando Sentinel | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | March 28, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The Disney movie “Ruby Bridges,” which tells the tale of a 6-year-old who integrated New Orleans schools in the 1960s, has been a staple of Pinellas County Black History Month lessons for years.

It never caused a stir until this year, as parents across Florida exert increased powers to question what children can see and read in schools.

A North Shore Elementary parent who would not allow her child to watch the film when it was shown in early March later complained that it wasn’t appropriate for second graders. In a formal challenge dated March 6, Emily Conklin wrote that the use of racial slurs and scenes of white people threatening Ruby as she entered a school might result in students learning that white people hate Black people.

Pinellas school officials responded by banning the movie for all students at the St. Petersburg school until a review committee can assess it. While it remains available for other schools to use, the step is drawing strong opposition.

A countywide group that represents Black children in Pinellas public schools has sent an open letter to the community questioning why one parent’s complaint resulted in actions that affect all families at North Shore.

“Many from historically marginalized communities are asking whether this so-called integrated education system in Pinellas County can even serve the diverse community fairly and equitably,” wrote Ric Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students.

The group has been active for years, often working with school district officials and at times battling them in court.

The controversy follows a heated dispute earlier this year over the banning of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from all district high schools after one parent complained about a two-page rape scene. District officials cited new state law and a rule telling them to “err on the side of caution” when considering whether books should be used in classrooms and libraries.

The state’s guidelines, which some have called vague, have led to book challenges and bans by the dozens throughout Florida.

“The (Pinellas) district’s leadership appears to fear the potential consequences of not acting in the way they have on these two decisions,” Davis wrote in the open letter. “This approach to challenging times in education in our state raises serious questions about Superintendent (Kevin) Hendrick’s leadership.”

Davis acknowledged the political climate in Florida has educators second-guessing themselves about what materials to use in classes. Lawmakers have made clear that they don’t want books, movies or lessons about race to create student discomfort, though they also have said they want facts presented honestly.

The scenes depicted in “Ruby Bridges,” released in 1998, are historically accurate, Davis said, adding that the truth will not change because someone doesn’t like it.

“At the highest level of decision-making in the district, they have to have more sensitivity to the diversity of the community they serve, and not overreact because one white person objected to something,” he said, quickly adding that they should not overreact to a Black person’s objection either.

Conklin was one of two North Shore parents who declined to let their children watch the movie after the school sent out permission slips, including a link to a trailer, two weeks before showing the film to classes. She did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

The district has not yet scheduled times to review either “Ruby Bridges” or “The Bluest Eye.”

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