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Anti-Racist Picture Book Spurs Debate In Binghamton

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Parents and community members debated a Binghamton elementary school’s “Book of the Month” until close to midnight on Monday.

“Something Happened In Our Town” follows two kids, one Black and one white, after a Black man is shot by police in their town. During the Binghamton City School District Board of Education meeting, MacArthur Elementary School Principal Lori Asquith defended the book, stating it was chosen to be a springboard for conversation among students about topics widely discussed in the city and guided by carefully crafted lessons about racism and violence.

“Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with the conversations taking place in the book, they are conversations that are happening in our communities and should not be ignored,” said Asquith, whose husband works in law enforcement.

After a video of the book being read aloud circulated online, the Southern Tier chapter of the New York State Fraternal Order of Police and Binghamton Police Benevolent Association issued statements condemning the school’s choice.

“If you felt sickened by the recent video of the anti-police book read by the teacher from MacArthur Elementary School, as we did, please show your support by joining the Binghamton School Board Zoom Meeting this coming Monday night, and expressing your concerns,” the Fraternal Order of Police wrote on Facebook.

The book was written by three child psychologists and ranked sixth on the American Library Association's list of the 10 most challenged books last year.

Binghamton City School District Superintendent Tonia Thompson issued a statement on Friday apologizing for the book’s negative portrayal of officers, but defended the educators’ choice to use it in the classroom. She mentioned the book includes a line about officers who make “good choices,” and wrote that teachers were provided the necessary resources to handle questions and dialogue that arose.

The video was pulled down after the teacher in it began to receive threats, Thompson said on Monday, but stressed that the book remains in the curriculum at schools’ discretion.

“The book has not been banned. The book has not been pulled,” Thompson said. “The book is used and can continue to be used in the district.”

The debate on the book came after weeks of tumultuous discussions on Binghamton's heavily-criticized police reform plan, which passed last month. City Council members cut public comment on the plan short and some criticized the plan's steering committee and city council for being strictly "performative" in its actions.

Many of those calling into the Board of Education meeting praised the board for being more receptive to residents' concerns and giving room for difficult conversations about biases.

Maliyka Muhammad lives in Binghamton and raised five Black sons in the city, one of which now works in law enforcement. She said educators and parents of any background should have conversations about interactions between Black Americans and the police.

“Because I have to have a separate conversation with my children, whether it be the males or the females, about how to conduct themselves in a manner so they will be safe,” Muhammad said.

She said her kids faced harassment from school resource officers at Binghamton High School. Other parents of children of color described instances in which their children as young as 11 years old were detained by Binghamton police.

Others on the call, however, said the story was divisive and painted police officers in a negative light. The Binghamton City School District employs several officers as school resource officers (SROs) in its buildings.

Laura Kaczynski said her husband is one of those SROs. She worried the story’s discussion of racial profiling in policing will make it more difficult for him to bridge gaps with students.

“They’re sitting down, they’re speaking with a police officer and they’ve been read this book and they’ve now been told at a very impressionable age, by the way, that they can’t trust the police officer, they’re not going to talk to them,” Kaczynski said. “They’re going to be scared.”

Other people calling in suggested equity was not for educators to tackle, but rather they should stick to traditional topics like math and social studies.

Members of the Board of Education disputed that notion, citing a resolution they passed in September affirming the district's commitment to equity, anti-racism and embracing diversity.

Board members plan to address further steps and hold a public forum on equity in the classroom in the coming months.