An elementary school administrator in Mississippi has said he was fired for reading "I Need A New Butt!", a humorous children's book about bottoms, to a class of second-graders.
The incident has spurred criticism from free speech advocates, who claim the termination could have a chilling effect at a time of conservative-fueled pushes for book bans in schools across the US.
On March 2, Read Across America Day, pupils aged six and seven from Hinds county, Mississippi were waiting for a school administrator to read to them in a Zoom session.
The administrator was unable to attend so Toby Price, an assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School who was in his office, stepped in. He quickly picked up "I Need A New Butt!", by Dawn McMillan, and started reading to around 240 children.
"I Need A New Butt!", for readers aged between four and eight, is about a boy who sets out to find a new bottom after seeing a "crack" in his buttocks which makes him afraid it is broken.
Price, who has been teaching for 20 years, said the district superintendent, Delesicia Martin, called him into her office and told him he was being placed on leave. Two days later, Price said, he was accused of breaking the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics, and fired.
"I expected a write up," Price said. "I did not expect to get terminated. I cried the entire way home."
In a letter to Price, the superintendent reportedly called the book "inappropriate", pointing to references to flatulence and noting that it "described butts in various colors, shapes and sizes (example: fireproof, bullet proof, bomb proof)".
Price said school officials told him they feared complaints from parents and Martin said he had been "unprofessional". Price said he had a lawyer and would fight his firing.
Neither Martin nor members of the school board immediately responded to Guardian requests for comment.
Pen America, the authors' organization, urged school officials to reverse their decision.
"Certainly, the book in question is meant to be humorous for a young audience, and fellow educators might reasonably question if it was the optimal choice for this particular occasion," the organization said.
"But 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."
Price said literacy instruction was crucial at his school, in a county where more than 21% live under the poverty line.
"We have a lot of reluctant readers," Price said. "I am a firm believer that reluctant readers need the silly, funny books to hook them in."
He has three children to support, he said, two with severe autism, adding: "I'm tired. I'm stressed. I'm overwhelmed. I need to work."
Price received support on social media.
"My granddaughter heard him read the book and thought it was hilarious and not at all inappropriate!" one commenter wrote. "When they do have a hearing, believe me, me and Baby Girl's gonna be front and center!"
[via The Guardian]