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Novel about Black boy shot by officer pulled from Florida classes after police union complaint

The teaching of "Ghost Boys," about a 12-year-old Black boy who is killed by a white officer, was halted in two Broward County fifth grade classes.

Complaints from a police union and parents prompted a South Florida school system to temporarily stop teaching a fictional book about a Black boy who was fatally shot by a white police officer, district officials said.

A representative for Broward County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the country, with more than 260,000 students, confirmed in a statement Monday that the novel, "Ghost Boys," by Jewell Parker Rhodes, has been pulled, for now, from two fifth grade classrooms.

The spokesperson said in a statement that, after the school district received a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police, it determined that proper procedures to make sure the book could be taught in classrooms weren't followed.

Image: Ghost Boys
"Ghost Boys," by Jewell Parker Rhodes.Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

"Members of the School Board of Broward County received a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police, Florida State Lodge - District 5, expressing concern about the use of a specific young adult novel in some 5th Grade classrooms," the statement read.

The district deems the book to be "supplementary fictional text," meaning it's not a standard instructional resource in the curriculum, the statement said.

The district said "procedures were not proactively followed prior to the assignment of the novel."

"Subsequently, upon receiving parental concern, the use of the book was paused in two 5th Grade classrooms until procedures are implemented," it said.

Paul Kempinski, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police district lodge, said Monday that the book is "propaganda that police officers are liars, racists, murderers."

"It goes out of its way to characterize police officers like that," said Kempinski, who read the novel and wrote a letter about it, which the union posted on its social media sites Thursday. The union then tagged Broward County Public Schools.

The letter said: "I have taken the time to read this book and am in disbelief that this would be a 5th-grade reading assignment, or that this book would be at all approved by the Broward County Public Schools."

Rhodes declined to comment through her publicist.

A website highlighting her work describes "Ghost Boys" as a story of 12-year-old Jerome, who is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real weapon. As a ghost, Jerome sees the "devastation that's been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust brutal killing," the website reads.

The book has received dozens of awards since 2018, according to the website.

The district's decision raised concerns from the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression. The group contends that even if the book is considered controversial, stories affecting students of color are hard to find in some school systems, spokeswoman Nora Pelizzari said.

About 40 percent of Broward's students are Black, according to district statistics.

"All across the country, there is very important work being done to diversify curricula to make sure that students are reading books that reflect their own lives and their own realities so that they can get the most from their education," Pelizzari said. "But also, so that other students in the classroom, for whom that might not be their reality, can be exposed to lives and ideas and experiences beyond their own."

Kempinski said books like "Ghost Boys" create more tension between police and communities they are sworn to protect.

"There is a lot of work to be done between police officers and the community," Kempinski said. "Our police officers in South Florida work hard to try and build bridges in the community. Books like these damage those relationships without creating real solutions."

The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote the Kingsbury Elementary Charter School District in California in October after it removed "Ghost Boys" from being taught. Pelizzari said representatives of the group are still reviewing the case in Broward County to determine whether it will respond officially.

"We advocate very strongly for school districts to have robust book review policies, because book challenges happen all the time — hundreds of hundreds every year, all across the U.S., in every school district," she said. "The best types of policies and procedures favor keeping the books in classrooms and in circulation until a proper review can be completed."