It was Read Across America week, and the second graders in the Hinds County School District in Mississippi were waiting for an administrator to read to them.
The administrator had forgotten it was her turn, said Toby Price, the assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School in Hinds County, who was in his office at the time. He decided to fill in.
Mr. Price, 46, quickly grabbed a book — “I Need a New Butt!” by Dawn McMillan, one of his children’s favorites — and began reading it to the roughly 240 second graders over Zoom.
Later that day, on March 2, the district superintendent, Delesicia Martin, called him into her office and told him he was on administrative leave, Mr. Price said. He was fired two days later, accused of violating the standards of conduct section of the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics.
In a letter to Mr. Price, the superintendent called the book “inappropriate.” She particularly took issue with the references to farting in the story and how “the book described butts in various colors, shapes and sizes (example: fireproof, bullet proof, bomb proof).” Ms. Martin called Mr. Price “unprofessional” for having selected the book.
“I expected a write up,” said Mr. Price, who had worked for the district for three years. “I did not expect to get terminated. I cried the entire way home.”
Mr. Price, who has been an educator for 20 years, said he had hired a lawyer and planned to fight the termination before the school board.
Ms. Martin and the five-member school board did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Friday. But Mr. Price’s termination brought swift criticism from children’s authors and PEN America, a free speech organization that fights bans against books.
In a letter, PEN America said that “in positioning the act of reading a book as a violation of ethics, the district is implying that any educator could be terminated under similar circumstances” — a fear that many teachers are already grappling with after a slew of Republican-led efforts last fall to ban schools from teaching and discussing race, racism and other “divisive concepts.”
On the elementary school’s Facebook page, the grandmother of one of the students at the school posted a news story about Mr. Price’s termination and said she planned to speak on his behalf before the school board and fight to get “his job back.”
“My granddaughter heard him read the book and thought it was hilarious and not at all inappropriate!” the grandmother wrote.
Mr. Price said that was the reaction from students after he read the book. He recalled going into the hallway and being approached by students who thanked him for his pick.
“They loved it,” he said. “They all stopped me and said, ‘Mr. Price, that book was really good.’”
The Hinds County School District has about 5,500 students and 425 teachers and covers half a dozen towns near Jackson, Miss. More than 21 percent of the general population in Hinds County lives under the poverty line, well above the national average, according to Data USA.
Mr. Price said that it was particularly critical to teach literacy at his school, where many children rely on free lunches or reduced-price meals.
“We have a lot of reluctant readers,” he said. “I am a firm believer that reluctant readers need the silly, funny books to hook them in.”
“I Need a New Butt!,” which was published in 2012, is marketed to children ages 4 to 8 and tells the story of a young boy who sets off to find a new behind after he sees a “crack” in his and fears it’s broken.
Mr. Price said that school administrators told him they were worried they would get complaints from parents about the subject matter.
When he was called into the superintendent’s office, he said that one of the administrators asked him, “Is this the kind of thing you find funny?”
Mr. Price replied, “Well, I did before I walked in here.”
He said he wanted only his job back so he could support his three children. His two eldest children — a daughter, 19, and a son, 18 — have severe autism.
“I’m tired. I’m stressed. I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “I need to work.”