The Potluck

Legislators question schools’ use of picture book about police shootings

By: - February 8, 2021 5:58 pm

Snow-covered school buses are parked during the winter holiday in Cloquet, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota legislators on Monday weighed in on a controversy over a picture book that was read to fourth graders in Burnsville this fall. 

Legislators questioned Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker about the book “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” which features two families discussing a police shooting of a Black man. 

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association made national headlines in October after requesting in a letter to Gov. Tim Walz that the state “cease recommendation and use” of the book after an elementary school teacher used the book in her classroom.

“There are some good things in the book, but there are some issues that need to be addressed so we have a better understanding what is going on,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes.

“Something Happened In Our Town” was written by psychologists for children between ages 4 and 8 and has won several awards for aiding discussions around racism and police violence. The title is one of many included in a Minnesota Department of Education list of optional resources to help adults address trauma and racism with children. 

Republican legislators questioned whether the book should be “endorsed” by the Minnesota Department of Education, and several voiced concerns that “impressionable” children may fear police officers after reading it. 

“I personally know that officers are struggling with people approaching them much differently due to recent events, and being fearful of them and making accusations that aren’t true. So I struggle with children that young being taught this,” said Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen. 

The book’s authors make clear that it’s not intended for children to read alone and “draw their own conclusion. They are meant to be in conversation with the adults in their lives as they interpret the book and discuss the book together,” Ricker said.

Democrats in the committee spoke in favor of the book, saying that it helps educators take on complex issues in the classroom. 

“The reality is, those things are out there and they’re part of our lived reality,” said Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, who is also a teacher. “Having a constructive conversation, which is what this book does show, is super important, so I hope we’ll be thoughtful about this going forward.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.