SMITHFIELD – At one point during Monday night’s Smithfield School Committee meeting discussing parents’ protest against three books being added to local elementary school libraries, members of the audience interrupted speeches, yelling at parents to “say the n-word.”

The comments drew sharp criticism from school officials and other members of the audience.

Parent Jeff LeBlanc was appealing the district’s decision to add three books to the library. According to LeBlanc’s appeal, the books violate school policy that the material provided will “enrich and support the curriculum, taking into consideration the varied interests, abilities and maturity levels of the students served.”

LeBlanc said he found the district’s decision to add the books to the school “highly unsatisfactory.”

The books include “Were I Not a Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry,” by Lisa Robinson, “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart,” by Zetta Elliot, and “Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson,” by Jen Bryant and Cannaday Chapman.

Supt. Judy Paolucci said a review team found that the books align with the American Association of School Librarians Standards and Smithfield library materials policies and rubrics.

“Were I Not a Girl,” describes the life of James Barry, a woman who dressed as a man to go to medical school, and continued dressing as a man the remainder of her life to practice medicine.

Paolucci said parents do not want children exposed to LGBTQ+ themes in literature. While Paolucci said she supports parents’ decisions, she said representation in the school is important for children’s well-being.

“We have some students here with two mothers. If no book in the library represents their lives, that’s not really right,” she said.

“A Place Inside of Me” is a poetry book with emotions describing a Black child’s reaction to a familiar person being killed by a police officer. The book features Black Lives Matters posters, and some parents said they felt it was anti-police.

LeBlanc said he felt none of the three books were age-appropriate for children 8-11 years old. He said negatively portraying law enforcement does not support any curriculum, nor do gender inequality or racial slurs.

“Knowledge is power, certain words with that power, particularly that one, there comes a great responsibility with how you decide to understand and to use, hopefully never, that word. To put that responsibility on an 8, 9, 10 or 11-year-old is an unreasonable ask,” LeBlanc said.

Tim Marshall, a retired police officer, said in the case of local libraries and bookstores, he has oversight on what his children purchase or borrow. He said in the book “A Place Inside Me,” police are offensively portrayed as “black-booted thugs.”

“Feed Your Mind” is a book about a Black playwright, who at a point in the book uses the n-word to explain how he was bullied and how it is derogatory to Black people.

Responses to the books were varied. Some said they feel children should learn about racial slurs, and how they are wrong to use, at home.

A young non-white student spoke about her experiences with bullying and racism in the Smithfield district, which ultimately led to her decision to move to another district next year. She said she was discriminated against as early as preschool, and was forced to learn about racism through acts of racism made toward her.

“Unfortunately, within this district, there is a lack of empathy and understanding,” she said.

When she said she would leave for another school, an adult in the audience cheered at the fact she would no longer be in the district. School Committee members then called the parent out for their rudeness.

“I thought it was wonderful that she was brave enough to get up and talk,” Paolucci said.

Morayo Sayles, a Black parent, spoke about her children’s experience with racism in Smithfield. She said her children were called the n-word as early as the second grade. “And the third grade, and the fourth grade and the fifth grade, and still had to go to school,” she said.

Sayles said racism did not come from high-schoolers, it is in the younger grades.

“At what point do they (a white student) need to learn that it is not okay,” she said. She said she is certain those young students know exactly what it means and how to use it. She said it is indoctrinated in U.S. culture.

Paolucci said the district is focused on teaching students to live in the multi-cultural and diverse society, and finds it important to teach more than the white perspective.

“It’s sad in a way that our society has gotten so divided that it has become, for some people, OK to not be tolerant. It is very disheartening,” she said.

The School Committee voted 4-1 to bring the books to the library, though none are part of a curriculum.

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