When a guest who was scheduled to read to second-graders over Zoom this month didn’t show up, Toby Price, the assistant principal at a Mississippi elementary school, improvised.
“It’s a funny, silly book,” Price, 46, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I’m a firm believer that … if kids see that books can be funny and silly, they’ll hang around long enough to see all the other cool things that books can be.”
The students “thought it was hilarious,” Price recalled. But the superintendent for the Hinds County School District near Jackson, Miss., did not, and about an hour after the event, Price was placed on administrative leave. Two days later, on March 4, he was fired.
The superintendent, Delesicia Martin, who did not respond to The Post’s request for comment, wrote in Price’s termination letter that he “showed a lack of professionalism and impaired judgment” because “the topics described in this book were inappropriate.”
Now, Price is fighting to overturn the district’s decision. His efforts have garnered overwhelming support, he said, with parents, current and former students, and strangers speaking out and donating to a GoFundMe so he can pay for a lawyer and continue to support his family.
Price’s firing is the latest flash point over books in schools, though most of the conflicts have been over those that reference race and sexual orientation. In November, the American Library Association called the rate at which books are being challenged “unprecedented.” In several states where new laws are dictating how teachers discuss race in schools, many educators are scared they could lose their jobs over one misstep.
Price said he fears his situation could set a “scary precedent” for teachers in his district. He worries educators will wonder if they have to get approval for every book they read to their students.
“Teachers already have so much else to worry about when they come into a building: One, getting fired over test scores; two, is someone going to come in and shoot up the building? Or am I going to catch covid?” Price said.
The events leading to Price’s firing began March 2, when he organized a Zoom event for second-graders at the Byram, Miss., elementary school. The gathering was to celebrate Read Across America Day, which is Dr. Seuss’s birthday and a day dedicated to encouraging children to read. The plan was to have a special guest read a book to them.
When the guest did not arrive, Price’s boss asked him to read to the students. Price said the second-graders loved the book, which is about a boy who thinks he needs a new butt after noticing his has a large crack.
Fifteen minutes after the event, Price said, the principal at his school called him into her office. According to Price, she told him that he shouldn’t have chosen that book and that parents might complain. Soon after the meeting, he said, he was told the superintendent wanted to see him at the district office immediately.
“They kind of just let me have it,” Price said. “She said, ‘Is this the kind of thing you find funny and silly? Fart and butt and bulletproof butts?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I did until I walked in.’ ”
On March 4, Price was called back to the district office and fired, he said.
Price said he was blindsided by the sudden decision, noting that he has never had any disciplinary issues. Not only does he love working with children, but he also has a family to support, he said. Two of his three children have autism.
Since the firing, Price said, he has not been allowed back into his office to collect his personal items. And though he wants the district’s decision overturned, he’s unsure about returning to the job, since he fears he’ll be scrutinized by senior administrators. He is more concerned with ridding the termination from his record.
Price said he hasn’t heard of any complaints about the book from parents and noted that members of the parent-teacher organization wrote to him offering their support. Former students have also spoken out, including one who wrote a thread on Twitter about how “amazing” Price was at his job.
“The man absolutely loved reading and actively encouraged it,” the former student wrote. “Even lending books from his own office for kids to read.”
mr price was an amazing assistant principal. he was kind, funny and genuinely cared about all the kids in attendance at the school. we kids loved him! i seriously hope everything works out for him because the man is a legend in my book.— Gatsby my mind is at Redwall Abbey (@gattskin) March 10, 2022
Tom Angleberger, the children’s author best known for the “Origami Yoda” and “Rocket and Groot” series, told The Post that he has known Price for years. Angleberger said he admires that Price “never gives up” and dedicated a book to him and his family in recognition of his perseverance.
“Mr. Price is dedicated to making connections with kids, to making sure they have a caring adult in their lives and to proving to them that learning and reading don’t have to be boring,” Angleberger said.
Price said he doesn’t regret his decision to read “I Need a New Butt!”
“Kids need silly books,” Price said. “The world is too harsh a place.”
As of early Friday, the book was No. 6 on Amazon’s children’s book bestsellers list.
Michael Cavna contributed to this report.