EXCLUSIVE: CBLDF Talks to Persepolis Sleuth Jarrett Dapier!

PersepolisFollowing the recent revelation of new details regarding the Chicago Public Schools’ 2013 classroom ban of Persepolis, CBLDF got in touch with Library & Information Science graduate student Jarrett Dapier, who used the Freedom of Information Act to secure the release of emails among CPS administrators about the book. In the interview below, we talk to Dapier about his work at the public library in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, systemic problems within CPS, the particular attention given to controversial content in comics, and the importance of student activism in this case.

CBLDF: Tell us a little about what you do at Evanston Public Library

Jarrett Dapier: I left the Evanston Public Library in August 2014 to pursue fulltime studies in library science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but when I did work there, I was a part-time teen services librarian. My job consisted of providing readers advisory and reference services as well as devising, developing, and leading programming for local teens. During my 5 1/2 years there I spent a lot of time running a teen theater troupe devoted to the adaptation of young adult literature to the stage. This was a consistently rewarding experience because it attracted teens who were interested in exploring stories through performance, but felt for one reason or another alienated by — or simply uninterested — in participating in their high school or middle school drama departments. The troupe I ran accepted anyone who wanted to take part in it and so we always had a wide range of teens from all of Evanston’s schools involved and they were all really game for a collaborative, ensemble-driven experience.

We told stories that very few conventional drama departments or youth theater organizations would touch. Two projects I was most proud of were an adaptation of Chris Crutcher’s novel about censorship, The Sledding Hill, for Banned Books Week 2010 (which Crutcher attended) and last summer’s reading of selections from How Long Will I Cry?, an oral history about Chicago youth violence published by DePaul University’s Big Shoulders Books. The latter project was part of a summer-long series about ending youth violence I created in partnership with the Dajae Coleman Foundation, an exemplary organization in Evanston devoted to empowering youth and raising young leaders. Creating programs through partnerships with others is a central part of the library work I do.

CBLDF: What prompted you to submit the FOIA request?

JD: My FOIA request was just one part of the research I conducted last winter for an article that I wrote about the 2013 censorship of Persepolis in Chicago Public Schools. I was inspired to write it when I learned about the Vietnamese government’s censorship in 2012 of a comic book published there called Killer With A Festering Head. The book was censored for being too politically critical and for raising issues the government feared would incite Vietnamese citizens to question the levels of poverty that run rampant through that country. But when the government censored the book and ordered its removal, the book became an instant hit with teenagers. Physical copies were shared widely on the black market and then when it hit the internet in pirated digital form, teens were reading it everywhere. Not only was the censorship a complete failure, but it engendered little pockets of teen reading communities throughout the country. This made me wonder: How did the 2013 banning of Persepolis affect teens and the way they read? Did it encourage more teens in CPS to seek out comics? Other political or historical stories? Did it inspire activism in defense of intellectual freedom? These were the questions that formed the core of my article.

But I sent the FOIA request because after maybe 15 interviews with CPS teachers, students, journalists, and librarians who played some part in protecting Satrapi’s comic from removal in the schools and after assembling a thorough timeline of how the banning effort came to light, how it was protected in school libraries, and how it grew into a protest that attracted worldwide attention, I realized that there was a gaping hole in our understanding of the order to remove the book from the schools. Specifically, no one knew where the order originated within CPS (though there were rumors), no one knew who made the sweeping decision to remove the book from ALL the public schools in Chicago, and no one knew if the mayor’s office was involved. CPS stuck to their story that they “never meant” to ban the book and that it all stemmed from a “miscommunication,” and they repeated it long enough that they effectively stonewalled any attempt at getting answers made by organizations like the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the story eventually faded away. CPS moved on to its next crisis of dysfunction.

Still, the documents that were provided the OIF and NCAC, referred to a meeting of the Chiefs of Schools, at which a directive was made to remove the book from all classrooms and libraries throughout CPS. So, I filed a FOIA requesting any and all documentation of that meeting. Miraculously, I received 46 some pages of emails that effectively answered nearly every lingering question and exposed the dishonesty of any claim that the removal of the book was a result of “miscommunication.” No, they intended to censor Persepolis from almost the moment it was brought to light (if these emails are any indication) and they acted on it.

One remaining question is, why the urgency? Why did the Office of Network Supports act so hysterically and immediately dispatch these school chiefs out to the schools to get this book? It’s baffling.

CBLDF: Reading the emails, I was struck by how disconnected the administrators seemed to be from the concerns of teachers and students, not to mention the value of literature. No one ever considers that perhaps they should read the entire book or that removing it from all schools just might cause a backlash. Do you think this is indicative of systemic problems within CPS?

JD: Yes. I am not an authority on the inner workings of CPS, but I do follow the school system closely. One thing I learned during my research conducting primary source interviews with teachers and CPS central office staff is that there is a shocking level of dysfunction in the way CPS is structured. The reason Persepolis was even in the schools was because there is a group of people in the central office who develop what are called Literary Content Frameworks. These are basically guides of suggested titles that they recommend for use in the curriculums throughout CPS. They don’t create curriculums or dictate them by any means. They create the guides and then it is up to chiefs of schools and others throughout the different networks of schools throughout the city to decide what goes into curriculums, which vary by network. The chiefs report to a department called the Office of Network Support, and from what I understand this is an isolated, fortified department with a tremendous amount of power and a history of acting in a rogue manner that impacts all the schools. And this is what we see in the FOIA documents: They make the decision in a matter of hours to remove this exceptional, beautiful autobiographical comic from classrooms and libraries in every CPS school. And, what’s more, the documents reveal that the CEO of CPS, Barbara Byrd Bennett, approved completely from the get-go. I would say there are serious systemic problems in that system. Which is heartbreaking. I met unbelievably talented, dynamic, and brilliant teachers and students in my research. They are all throughout that system. And it fails them.

CBLDF: Do you think the administrators would have reacted the same way to a few profanities in an all-text novel?

JD: I think it’s unlikely. On one level, I think the “offensive” content would have been much harder to spot if it were rendered in prose-narrative form. On another level, the teaching of comics is still rare in CPS (though that is changing fast thanks to this incident, which raised the profile of comics and how great they can be and how much students love them), and so I think there still lingers this powerful Wertham-residue that leads certain administrators and even some teachers to consider comics as either the literary equivalent of Judas Priest albums (satanic, causes delinquency) or they expect them to be wholesome, like the Sunday comics. Word has it that the school chief who initially objected to the book and kicked off the removal effort found the comic book in a 3rd grade classroom. That isn’t verified, but I can certainly understand questioning its appropriateness for that age. Within the young elementary school context, it makes sense that even simple drawings of torture and dehumanization and crude language would be deemed too confusing and upsetting for young kids. I think if it had been a novel, it would have been harder for it to come to light.

That said, the FOIA documents reveal that one of the chiefs on the list wanted a novel called Black Robe reviewed for removal, too. It’s hard to know.

CBLDF: Another salient point for me was the dire need for CPS to draft a challenge policy for classroom materials, which they apparently do not have currently. Individual teachers were basically powerless to stop the classroom ban without risking their jobs, although we know of one anonymous teacher who cunningly had her school’s classroom copies recataloged as library books so they would be safe. And history teacher Dave Stieber assigned his 11th and 12th grade students to read the book and discuss whether they thought the ban was justified. (Most said no.) Do you know of any other acts of resistance from teachers?

JD: Those are the two highest profile examples of resistance from teachers. The first — and only — books that were actually removed from a classroom were returned to the teacher when she informed her administration at Lane Tech that the books were her property. Which was true. The school did not own them, they were a gift from a former teacher to her when she inherited that teacher’s classroom. So, she rescued the books before they were transferred to the Department of Literacy, and she immediately handed them over to the school librarian who lent them out to any student who wanted one. That librarian has since been re-classified as an English teacher and Lane Tech no longer has a certified librarian on staff. But I don’t believe that decision was connected to her actions during this at all. It’s part of a larger trend against school librarians throughout CPS and American public schools.

CBLDF: A few months ago we also covered how CPS has been reassigning librarians to classroom teaching jobs they never intended to have. As of September 2014, there were only 254 full or part-time librarians for more than 600 schools. What does this mean for intellectual freedom in the district?

JD: It’s disastrous. Setting aside the fact that there is an absolutely shameful dearth of libraries throughout the CPS system (itself an intellectual freedom issue), but fewer librarians means fewer information professionals schooled in the principles of intellectual freedom, trained in the development and implementation of collection policies that protect the right to read, and working daily to support the information-gathering needs — and rights — of students. It’s another example of the way CPS neglects the intellectual, creative, and academic potential of its students who, let’s not forget, are largely students of color from disadvantaged backgrounds.

CBLDF: One positive aspect of this whole story was the way that students spoke up in protest. Based on district policy, librarians were only able to protect library books, and teachers were given no standing whatsoever. How do you think the students affected the outcome of the ban?

JD: Aside from the librarians and staff within the CPS Department of Libraries who acted quickly to protect library copies of the books, I think the students at Lane Tech High School were instrumental in bringing to light — on a worldwide scale — the actions of CPS to suppress this book. A student was responsible for alerting Marjane Satrapi and her publisher about what had happened, a student named Katie McDermott was largely responsible for organizing the protest that attracted 50-80 students, teachers and other supporters to stand in the frigid rain and rally in support of free speech, and an extraordinary student named Levi Todd who founded and ran the school’s banned book club, 451 Degrees, before this all went down was eloquent in the press, wrote an op-ed, and organized a sit-in in the school library after the protest that attracted lots of media attention. When 451 Degrees and the students of Lane Tech were awarded the Intellectual Freedom Award by the Office of Intellectual Freedom, it was absolutely deserving. They were acting in the spirit of other courageous teens like Claudette Colvin and those Denver teens we see today protesting standardized testing. One teacher I spoke with said, “everything that happened to protect the book was a result of the students. They did everything.”

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.