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Book on police shooting of Black man sparks controversy at Papillion La Vista schools

Book on police shooting of Black man sparks controversy at Papillion La Vista schools

A book shared with students at two Papillion La Vista schools has prompted strong reactions from parents and educators.

The book, “Something Happened in Our Town,” depicts a White family and a Black family as they discuss a police shooting of a Black man in their community.

Papillion La Vista Superintendent Andrew Rikli said Monday that he has received “countless” emails and phone calls from people with varying viewpoints on the book.

Rikli addressed the controversy during a Papillion La Vista Community Schools Board meeting Monday.

The book and a video version of the book, which were shared with students at two schools in late March, were mistakenly placed on a teacher resource list without prior review, Rikli said.

“One, it was pushed out to our schools to be used from a resource list but was never truly vetted through our curriculum process,” Rikli said. “Second, the video was pulled because the police are portrayed in an extremely negative way. The comments about police in this video aren’t representative of the way our district views our local police officers.”

Rikli said he has met with leaders from both law enforcement and the teacher’s association to explain the situation and apologize to both groups.

“We are not a school district that believes it’s our role to share negative perceptions with our students about law enforcement,” he said. “We believe we can have difficult conversations about delicate topics such as racism without making negative blanket statements about others.”

At the Monday board meeting, Elizabeth von Nagy, a Papillion-La Vista High School librarian, spoke in defense of “Something Happened in Our Town.”

“This book is a New York Times best-seller recommended for children ages 4 to 8,” Nagy said. “The authors are women with Ph.D.s who are well respected psychologists. It was well reviewed, receiving awards and accolades.”

Nagy asked that the board speak to the district’s Black students.

“I urge you to ask them if the district’s response was palpable and supportive, especially given the district’s focus on equity and diversity this school year,” Nagy said.

Tim Hall, who spoke to the board as a concerned citizen, took issue with multiple passages of the book, including when a character says, “The cops shot him because he was black,” and when a parent in the book says that there are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices, followed by another character saying, “But we can’t always count on them to do the right thing.”

“These passages, beyond being inappropriate for school-aged children, are biased to the police and ... exhibit racist ideas,” Hall said.

Also at the board meeting, Jared Wagenknecht, vice president of the Papillion La Vista Education Association, spoke in support of educators who shared the book with their students.

“The Papillion La Vista Education Association stands in strong support of educators who engage their students in courageous conversations about racism and social injustice,” Wagenknecht said. “The problem is not the material in question. The problem is continuing to ignore the very real issues of racism and injustice.”

The worst consequences of the district’s response are the missed opportunities for discussion and questions, Wagenknecht said.

“Our students deserve to be engaged,” he said. “It is our job to help students process and make sense of the world that they have inherited.”

jwade@owh.com, 402-444-1067

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Jessica Wade covers breaking news, crime and the Omaha zoo. Follow her on Twitter @Jess_Wade_OWH. Phone: 402-444-1067

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