The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Teachers are under fire in increasingly bizarre ways

(Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
5 min

This is hardly the first time in our history that a conservative backlash to social change has centered on schools. But this one is intense, and after starting with a manufactured panic over critical race theory, it has expanded its targets to include discussions of sexuality, gender identity and other things that might make certain kids feel “uncomfortable” — or at least, make their parents feel uncomfortable.

While the organizers of this backlash know they can’t police every teacher (though there have been proposals to put cameras in classrooms), what they can do is make teachers and school administrators live in fear.

The book-bannings, suspensions and firing of teachers we’re seeing are largely driven by the efforts of conservatives, but they’re also drawing in people who are not obviously conservative. Sometimes just the potential of protests appears to be causing administrators to come down hard on teachers who stray from orthodoxies that seem largely arbitrary.

Two new examples drive home the phenomenon.

In Idaho, the appropriately titled House Bill 666 would provide jail sentences for teachers or librarians who disseminate “material harmful to minors.” It has already passed the House. Similar bills with criminal penalties for school personnel are moving through the legislative process in Indiana and Iowa.

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Or consider the case of Toby Price, who until recently was assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary in Byram, Miss. He has now apparently been fired for reading a class a book called “I Need a New Butt!” by Dawn McMillan.

Price told us that last week, he’d been asked to schedule a Zoom meeting for another school official to read to all the second grade classes. But she didn’t show up. After this, Price says, his boss asked him to do the reading.

So Price grabbed a nearby book which happened to be the tome on butts. Price said he has read this “very silly, very funny” book to classes in the past without incident.

“After I read it, the principal called me into her office,” Price says, recounting that she warned him that parents were going to complain. Soon after, he says, he was placed on administrative leave while being investigated, and two days later he was informed that he’d be terminated.

As Price put it, he was told that “choosing this book showed a lack of professional judgment, because it included the words ‘butt’ and ‘fart,’ and different examples of butts like a robot butt and a bulletproof butt.”

“Stuff like ‘Captain Underpants’ and ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ talks about more suggestive things than this book does,” Price told us.

A letter to Price from the district superintendent repeatedly describes the reading of this book as “inappropriate.” The superintendent didn’t return a call for comment.

This book is recommended for children ages 6-10, and while it’s true that it is built on silly body humor, anyone who has had a second-grader knows that (1) they are aware of what butts are, and (2) they find them hilarious. The book has also been banned in a Texas library system.

In recent years, children’s books have been more willing to make light of previously unmentionable topics that sane people now know are harmless (or even healthy) for kids to giggle about. The “Captain Underpants” books, which mention underpants in the title, have sold more than 80 million copies, been translated into 20 languages and been made into a feature film and a Netflix series.

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Importantly, Price may have been fired because his superiors feared parents might complain. That’s how a chilling effect works: It makes everyone terrified, resulting in self-censorship and preemptive punishments on teachers who transgress some imagined line of propriety.

“It’s not entirely clear what drove this decision. But it reflects the current moment,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free education and expression at PEN America, told us. “There’s this knee jerk, reflexive reaction to these situations where a taboo has been broached.”

“Everyone is on edge, meting out punishments as quickly as possible to avoid any semblance of controversy,” Friedman continued. PEN America has written a sharply worded letter to the superintendent protesting the decision.

For teachers, the past two years have been incredibly challenging, trying to teach students amid a pandemic while dealing with remote instruction, the need for mask-wearing, and a significant increase in mental health difficulties.

Add to that an organized campaign to vilify teachers and school officials — driven by right-wing grass-roots organizations and conservative dark-money groups — that has been marked by a torrent of anger and threats, and the result is an education system gripped by fear, where skilled, dedicated teachers are driven out of the profession.

Which is exactly what some people want. One thing this won’t produce is students who are better educated, more informed or more thoughtful. But at least some crusaders will be able to lie to themselves about whether their kids know what a butt is.

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