The inside story of why a Florida school removed a movie about Ruby Bridges
Ruby Bridges is a civil rights hero. At just six years old, Bridges was the first Black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, fulfilling the promise of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It was not easy. She faced a mob of protesters screaming racial slurs and had to be escorted by federal marshals. White parents wouldn't allow their children to share a classroom with Bridges, so she was taught alone. She could only bring food from home because federal marshals were worried that Bridges would be poisoned.
This is not ancient history; today, Ruby Bridges is 68 years old.
In 1998, Disney made a movie about Bridges' life. A review in the Chicago Reader said the star of the film, Chaz Monet, "captures the child’s happiness and sadness, fear and fortitude, with genuine subtlety." Moreover, the "subject matter is inherently moving, and this 1998 made-for-TV film makes effective drama of it." The story of Bridges' life is about persevering in the face of racism, and the film does include some racist language that was directed at Bridges and her family.
For years, schools in Pinellas County, Florida, have shown the film about Bridges as part of their Black History Month curriculum. Two weeks before the film was shown, parents were sent a trailer of the movie and asked to sign a permission slip. Emily Conklin, the parent of a second grader at North Shore Elementary in Pinellas County, decided not to allow her child to watch the film earlier this year. According to a spokesperson for the Pinellas County Schools, out of 60 students, "two families opted to not have their student participate in viewing the movie."
But for Conklin, that wasn't enough. On March 6, Conklin filed an "Objection to Instructional And/Or Media Material" seeking to ban the Ruby Bridges film for all second graders — and even much older students.
According to Conklin's objection form, which was obtained by Popular Information, the "theme or purpose" of the Ruby Bridges movie is "racism." Conklin claims the result of a child watching the film would be to "teach them racial slur [sic]" and that "white people hate black people." She objects to the movie being "very aggressive" about "the anger/racism of these white people."
Conklin also admits to only watching the first 50 minutes of the movie.
Conklin's objection form also contains misleading information. She says she learned the film was NR ("Not Rated") by the Motion Picture Association, suggesting that it may contain material entirely unsuitable for children. The Ruby Bridges movie is actually rated PG. Conklin did not return requests for comment.
According to Pinellas County School Board policy, after "a parent objects to the use of the material with other children besides their own child," the objection must be reviewed by the "School-Based Instructional Materials Review Committee," composed of parents, faculty members, community members, and a media specialist. Notably, "material in question will remain in use until the School-Based Instructional Materials Review Committee recommends a final decision." That decision can then be appealed to a district-wide materials review committee. There is no time frame for these reviews.
Nevertheless, in response to Conklin's objection, North Shore Elementary banned the film from its school pending a review, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Pinellas County Schools emphasized that the "movie remains available through the district’s licensed movie library" and is accessible at other schools. The spokesperson, however, acknowledged that Conklin was assured that North Shore Elementary "would not have any future showings [of the Ruby Bridges movie] during this school year" pending the review.
Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, a South Florida group, strongly objected to the school's actions. In an open letter, Davis writes that while the school removed the film after a complaint from one white parent, "Black and Brown children and their parents were not considered." The process, Davis says, raises questions about whether the "education system in Pinellas County can even serve the diverse community fairly and equitably."
The decision comes following the passage of the Stop WOKE Act, a bill championed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) that limits discussion of racial issues in classrooms. The law bans, among other things, content that could make students feel uncomfortable or guilty because of their race. DeSantis recently claimed that under his leadership, "instruction on African American History has only expanded."
Stephana Ferrell, the co-founder of Florida Freedom to Read, traced the controversy to the DeSantis administration's warning to educators to "err on the side of caution" when determining what is an "age-appropriate approach to covering the topics of racism and discrimination." Ferrell said a far better method is to "err on the side of education."
Pinellas schools banned acclaimed novel based on one parent's complaint
This past January, the Pinellas County School Board banned The Bluest Eye, a novel by the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning writer Toni Morrison. The book was removed after one parent, Michelle Stille, challenged the novel.
Under the district’s policy, the parent objecting to the use of certain classroom material needs to submit a form to the school’s principal. The principal then passes the complaint on to a review committee. Until the committee comes to a final decision, the material in question should remain in use. But this process was ignored when Palm Harbor University High banned The Bluest Eye and, later, when the district removed the book across all schools in the county.
Last November, according to documents obtained by Popular Information through Florida Freedom to Read, Stille emailed the Board complaining that the The Bluest Eye was “sexually explicit” and contained “graphic descriptions of pedophilia.” According to Stille, the novel lacked any value for students, including her 15-year-old who was required to read the book as part of their 11th grade IB English/AP Literature class at Palm High. The school had previously warned parents of the sensitive content and offered an alternative book.
“Is there not better literature out there to fill our children’s minds with? Are teachers so desperate to get their students to pay attention that they need to resort to graphic descriptions of illegal sex acts?” Stille wrote.
But Stille did not file an objection form. In her email, she did, however, congratulate the district's two new board members, Stephanie Meyer and Dawn Peters — both of whom were endorsed by the right-wing group Moms for Liberty.
Morrison’s The Bluest Eye tells the story of a young Black girl who longs for blue eyes and social acceptance. It tackles difficult themes like racism, incest, and abuse and has been lauded for its nuanced depictions of Black life in 1940s America. According to the American Library Association, it is one of the most banned and challenged books.
In December, Stille emailed school board attorney David Koperski. This time, she asked if the book violates Florida’s pornography statutes and inquired if school board members are “legally liable” if the book is found in violation of the law. Implicit in her inquiry is the belief that a teacher who assigns The Bluest Eye should be charged with a third-degree felony. But Stille still did not fill out the required objection form.
The principal of Palm High met with the teacher and a media specialist after receiving Stille’s email. Less than a week later, Pinellas County Schools' chief academic officer, Daniel Evans, notified Stille that upon review the principal concluded that the book “was not an appropriate fit.”
The principal of Palm High never assembled a review committee consisting of faculty, parents, and community members to examine the book. Under the district’s policy, the committee would have also had to prepare a report with its findings. But all these rules were cast aside. Instead, the school decided to remove The Bluest Eye and find a different book for the second semester.
Stille, though, still wasn’t satisfied. In January, Stille published a YouTube video titled “Marxism in Education,” where she echoed her previous claims about The Bluest Eye. She said that the book was the “final piece of indoctrination” and that the other books in her child’s English curriculum were “grooming” students for this final assigned reading. She also called public schools “Marxist indoctrination camps.”
Others joined in on the attack: Conservative blogger David Happe urged the chief of police of Pinellas County Schools to legally intervene because the school board was “violating Florida law” and disseminating “incestual racist rape literature.” Board Member Peters said that the book “CLEARLY” violated Florida’s pornography statutes and asked the superintendent if teachers who violate this law will be held accountable.
On January 24, the district instructed all school libraries to remove The Bluest Eye, arguing that the book was “potentially not age-appropriate.” The decision arose after the district team “consulted with district library media staff.”
“We understand that, taken as a whole, some could argue that the book may meet the legal definition and be considered age-appropriate for some students,” Evans wrote in an email. “Still, we are erring on the side of caution, per the language of the new training.”
In his email, Evans acknowledged that this decision fell “outside the formal processes for objection,” but said that the district has the authority to remove books without following protocol. “In this case, our district team has consulted with district library media staff and has decided that this is the best course of action per the law and to protect our employees,” Evans wrote.
This month, amid complaints, the district announced that it was planning to revisit The Bluest Eye this summer. According to Superintendent Hendricks, “the goal is to formalize a process for the district to have its certified media specialists annually review such moves” and give feedback on decisions.