(New York, N.Y.)– PEN America, the literary and free expression organization, has called on a Mississippi school district to immediately reverse the firing of an assistant principal who read the book I Need a New Butt to a group of 2nd graders and was terminated two days late

The letter to the Hinds County School District said the firing of Assistant Principal Toby Price from Gary Road Elementary School on March 4 was “an extreme disciplinary action, truly disproportionate to the situation.”

PEN America said the facts, to the best of the organization’s understanding, are as follows: Mr. Price chose to read the book I Need a New Butt, by Dawn McMillan, to a group of 2nd grade students on Zoom. The Zoom time had been set for a different educator to read a different book, but when they did not turn up, Mr. Price was instructed to read a book to fill the time. As a result of this choice, Mr. Price was then sent home for the day, suspended on administrative leave. He was called in for a disciplinary meeting on Thursday, March 4, at which time he was notified that he was being terminated for violating the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics, Standards of Conduct. 

In the letter of termination the school district cited the reading material as “inappropriate” and said it needlessly exposed children to “unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement.”

In its letter to the district, PEN America said no objective standard was raised as to how the district reached this assessment. 

PEN America said: “… in positioning the act of reading a book as a violation of ethics, the district is implying that any educator could be terminated under similar circumstances, whenever an anonymous source feels a book read to students is “inappropriate” for any reason. Such a precedent could be readily abused, enforced with unbridled discretion to censor the reading of books in schools.” 

PEN America said it recognized that there may be disagreements by educators, administrators, librarians, parents, and students over the appropriateness of a particular book. But, said PEN’s letter, “such disagreements should be worked out through dialogue and allowing a range of voices to be heard, not heavy-handed reprimands or, worse, termination decisions.”

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org