A Minnesota police group sent a letter last month to Edina Public Schools, criticizing the use of a children’s book at Highlands Elementary School.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association sent a letter May 20 to Edina school district leadership, including Superintendent Stacie Stanley and the Edina School Board, regarding the use of the book, “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” and a play of the same name that was put on by the Children’s Theatre Company. In the letter, the police group said the book demonizes the law enforcement profession.
In response, the district has said the book was not assigned reading for students and that attending the play was optional for families.
The children’s book, written by psychologists Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, carries the reader through the perspectives of two families – one white and one Black – regarding a recent police shooting of a Black man in their town.
The book aims to spark conversations about racial injustice and promote messages of acceptance, as well as help kids understand and deal with traumatic events like police shootings, according to the publisher’s description of the book.
In 2020, the book landed in sixth place on a list of the top 10 most challenged books, put out by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Reasons cited in challenges to the book included the promotion of anti-police views and “divisive” language, the list said.
“This book encourages children to fear police officers as unfair, violent, and racist,” states the Police and Peace Officers Association letter, which is signed by Executive Director Brian Peters. “It leaves children with the impression police officers are not there for the public safety of their communities and even suggests that children should fear police officers.”
The book has been the subject of previous scrutiny by the police organization, which represents over 10,000 active law enforcement officials. In 2020, the group posted a letter to social media, addressing Gov. Tim Walz over the book being read to fourth-graders at a Burnsville elementary school, according to a report published in the Star Tribune at the time.
The public letter to Walz asked the Minnesota Health and Education departments to stop recommending the book.
In the book, classmates Emma and Josh are shown having separate conversations with their families after hearing about the shooting. Sitting down with her mother, Emma asks questions about the incident. At one point, her mother tells her the man who was shot was not dangerous. “Shooting him was a mistake. It was a mistake that is part of a pattern,” she says.
Her mother continues, “This pattern is being nice to White people and mean to Black people, it’s an unfair pattern.”
In a separate conversation, Josh, who has an uncle who is a police officer, discusses with his family the way Black people have been treated in society, including by police officers.
“There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices,” his father says. “But we can’t always count on them to do what’s right.”
His mother says, “Sometimes White people are treated better than Black people ... But it’s not right. Everybody should be treated fairly.”
The book references U.S. history, including slavery and prominent Black figures, like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. In each of the conversations, Emma’s and Josh’s parents encourage the kids to intervene when someone is being treated unjustly. By the end of the book, the two kids help a new classmate who had been excluded.
A video version of book can be found at trimurl.co/4yXxVz.
Sent to the Edina school district, the police organization’s letter states that the rhetoric in the book contributes to their profession being “demonized,” prompting a “staffing crisis” for officer recruitment and retention. It requested that the district “cease use of this book as a form of instruction for elementary aged children.”
But the district has said the book is already not a part of its curriculum. However, it was read aloud to some students, said a Highland Elementary parent who requested anonymity given the nature of the topic, recalling what she was told by her fifth-grader. She did not allow her student to attend the play of the same name later offered by the district.
District spokesperson Mary Woitte confirmed that the book was read aloud, though she added that it was not a “guided reading group selection.”
Already aware of incidents happening around them, students need to be presented with “difficult” topics in order to have discussions about them, said Abby Rombalski, a University of Minnesota lecturer in the racial justice in urban schooling minor.
The book is focused on tackling biases, racial patterns and sticking up for people who are treated unfairly, not on police, Rombalski said. It’s a piece of “realistic fiction” in order to get kids and adults to have conversations. And typically, families who are white are not those who are having these conversations as of yet, and the book gives people some of those tools to have them, Rombalski said.
The Police and Peace Officers Association letter also denounced the fourth- and fifth-grade trip to the book’s stage adaptation.
The optional field trip to the production was offered to the students in February and March, Woitte said. The Minneapolis Children’s Theater is a common destination for such field trips, she said.
The Children’s Theatre Company began presenting the adapted play of the book in February, inviting families to have conversations about racism, according to sponsorship content by the company that appeared in the Sahan Journal.
The playwright, Cheryl L. West, further developed the original book’s story by expanding on the characters, creating new plot elements and adding a police officer character “in an effort to show how different lived experiences bring different perspectives to a complicated issue,” the content said.
The play is supportive of the police, Woitte noted.
An email was sent to families a week before the trip, explaining the stage production, providing an audio version of the book and letting parents know it was an optional event, Woitte said.
About 90 students ended up attending the play with 10 families choosing to not have their students go, she added. The school received positive feedback from a few of the parents who saw the play, Woitte said.
– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent