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Summer Reading choice stirs controversy in Sewanhaka Central High School District

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A book choice on the Sewanhaka Central High School District’s summer reading list has angered some community members who say it promotes anti-police views.

The novel, “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, follows the lives of two teenagers, Rashad and Quinn, after a police officer mistakes Rashad, who is Black, for a shoplifter when he tries to buy a bag of chips at the local bodega. The officer also “mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leaving the bodega as resisting arrest and mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to stay still as ordered,” according to its description on Amazon. “But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?”

Soon after, the beating is “all over the news,” and the police officer, Paul Galluzzo, is threatened with accusations of brutality and racial prejudice, although Quinn, Rashad’s classmate, cannot fathom how Galluzzo — who, as it happens, helped raise him after his father died in Afghanistan — could do such a thing.

“This is sickening,” Carey High School parent Tara Adamos posted on a Franklin Square Facebook group on July 23. “While we are living in a challenging social climate, this book does not at all reflect the majority of police officers.”

Adamos said that her father, brother and uncle were police officers for more than 25 years, and she has two family members who are currently active. “None of them ever had an incident with being accused of police brutality,” she wrote. “This is absolutely disrespectful to them and all police officers that risk their lives daily.”

Books on the district’s reading list were selected by the English chairs in each of the five schools, and students are required to read one of them over the summer. Then, in September, teachers will engage the students in book discussions and review the novels.

The books on the list “are more or less the same,” according to Carey parent Tizian Brugellis, and emphasize diversity. The list includes “Dear Martin,” by Nic Stone — in which a Black honors student drives with his best friend, Manny, who blasts his music, sparking the ire of a white off-duty police officer and “shots are fired”  — and “The Hate You Give,” by Angie Thomas — in which 16-year-old Starr Carter sees her friend Khalil, who is unarmed, shot and killed by a police officer. It later becomes national news and “protesters are taking to the streets in his name,” the book’s description reads. Some start to call Khalil a thug, and the police start questioning Carter about what she witnessed. 

The books were chosen to sharpen reading skills, promote reading over the summer break, “foster lifelong reading habits, expose students to a broader range of works not covered in our curriculum” and “enable students to make literary connections with contemporary texts,” the district’s English chairs wrote in a letter accompanying the list.

School officials could not be reached for further comment at press time.

But Brugellis, whose son will enter ninth grade in September, suggested the list also serves to “brainwash” children. “The schools should be a neutral place where kids get to be kids, and not a place where we train and brainwash new generations,” she told the Herald, adding, “I don’t want my son to read a book where, especially now, the police are trashed and blamed for what’s going on.”

Protests against police brutality have taken place nationwide since a white officer in Minneapolis, Minn., knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he stopped breathing on May 25. Floyd, a Black man, was unarmed.

“It’s just too much of a sensitive matter right now,” said Kay Santangelo, whose daughter will begom her sophomore year at Floral Park Memorial High School in September, noting that police brutality is a difficult subject for parents to discuss with their children. “Maybe this book would have been OK if all this stuff in the world wasn’t happening.”

Other community members, however, said students should learn about these issues. Kristy O’Connell commented, “People who are offended by exposing students to the realities of our country have to check themselves,” calling “All American Boys” “a window into a perspective and experience other than their own.”

O’Connell also told the Herald that if she had children, she would let them decide whether to read the book themselves, and lauded the district for “offering a selection of purposeful reading that just so happens to highlight real-world problems that are relevant to today’s climate.”

Still, Brugellis said, the district should showcase “both sides” of the issue. “We need to show our kids both realities,” she said. “It’s the only way they can make their own decisions.”