Disney’s “Ruby Bridges” movie, the focus of a controversy that recently put Pinellas County in the spotlight, has been cleared for use at North Shore Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
A committee made up of three teachers, two parents and two community members unanimously determined after an 18-minute meeting on April 3 that the 1998 film about a 6-year-old Black girl who integrated a New Orleans elementary school was appropriate for elementary-age children.
They voted to leave the movie intact, with the same rules in place that teachers used to show it in March. They did so after hearing from the second-grade teaching team and a district level content specialist who said the movie is age-appropriate and meets state academic standards.
The committee was brought together to consider a complaint from a parent who contended the movie included too many racial slurs and threats of violence by white adults against the girl as she entered her school surrounded by U.S. marshals. The mom, Emily Conklin, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, argued that the movie could have the effect of teaching that white people hate Black people.
“I personally found the Ruby Bridges film to be an inspiring story about Black people and white people overcoming challenges,” said committee member Kyandra Darling. “I don’t believe the film teaches hate. Instead it displays the ugliness of intolerance … which our students should learn from.”
Committee member Molly Auld, a parent, said she found the movie an appropriate launching point to have needed conversations with her children. She added that she had “complete confidence” in the school’s teachers to select the right curriculum and materials.
“I personally don’t feel like this particular movie needs anything more than what already goes home,” Auld said, supporting the motion to leave “Ruby Bridges” intact.
A crowd of about 50 people, including educators, anti-censorship advocates, members of the Black community and school board member Laura Hine attended.
Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, said she was delighted with the outcome.
“It demonstrates that here in St. Petersburg, all of American history is important to be taught to our scholars,” Lipsey Scott said outside the school. “It saddens me that we even had to have a meeting.”
Hine, the school board’s vice chairperson, said she was pleased that the district process for reviewing challenged materials worked properly. She said she was proud of North Shore, where her children attend, for demonstrating that the procedure can be done fairly and democratically.
She said the school’s second grade parents have taken the needed next step, reaching out to Conklin to let her know that they respect her voice and welcome her family.
“Our society has got to come to a place where we can have a conversation, disagree and then stand together,” Hine said.
Second graders at North Shore watched the movie, rated TV-PG, in early March as part of a Black history lesson. Parents received information about the material two weeks ahead of time and were asked for permission to show the movie to their children.
Two families opted out.
A couple of days later, Conklin, who did not allow her child to watch, filed a formal challenge to the movie. A top district official told her that the movie was removed from the school’s K-5 curriculum, and word quickly spread that it was banned at North Shore Elementary.
Within a week, Superintendent Kevin Hendrick clarified that the movie remained available for use in all schools including North Shore, as the district’s materials-challenge policy provides, provided teachers follow the rules for showing a movie rated PG or higher.
But the story already had gone viral internationally about the challenge and the district’s initial announcement that it wouldn’t be shown at North Shore anymore.
Much of the response came in defense of the movie. Many people noted that the state has laws requiring that children be taught the facts of Black history in the United States, and said the movie offers an accurate depiction of what happened to Bridges, now a civil rights activist.
“If you deny history and hide things, how do you get the younger generation to understand and know what is wrong?” Euzhan Palcy, the movie’s director, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Palcy suggested if a 6-year-old Ruby could endure the taunts and slurs, children older than she should be able to watch a film about it.
Many also questioned the ability of a single person to drive a decision about school materials, particularly in a case where response by nearly all other parents supported the use of the movie.
On the other side came the argument that elementary-age children should not hear racial slurs such as those used in the movie, and the school should not provide access to such language. Some said schools should not use movies rated beyond G in their lessons for the early grades, arguing that the material should be saved for older students.