Grad Student Uncovers Truth About Persepolis Ban in Chicago Public Schools

free-persepolis-1A graduate student’s research is throwing new light on Chicago Public Schools officials’ 2013 effort to remove Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis from libraries and classrooms throughout the district. Emails released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and first reported in the Chicago Reader last week confirm what seemed incredible to observers at the time: that top administrators of the third largest school district in the United States really did think they could remove a modern classic from schools without regard for their own policies, their teachers’ and librarians’ professional expertise, or even basic First Amendment principles.

News of the ban broke on March 14, 2013, when a local education blogger got hold of an email from the principal of Lane Tech College Prep High School which informed teachers and staff that he had been directed in no uncertain terms to collect all copies of Persepolis from the school’s library and classrooms. He was given no explanation for the sudden purge, he said.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett started backpedaling later that day, after teachers and students raised objections and local media began asking questions. Byrd-Bennett revised the directive in another email to principals, saying that “we are not requesting that you remove Persepolis from your central school library.” But the book was still banned from seventh grade classrooms and “under review” for use in eighth through tenth grades. Teachers of college-level AP classes for 11th and 12th grade students would be allowed to retain the book in their curricula.

Unsurprisingly, Byrd-Bennett’s “clarification” did little to assuage the concerns of teachers and especially students, who organized a demonstration outside Lane Tech on March 15. By then, CPS was receiving national press coverage and stern rebukes from free speech groups, including CBLDF through the NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project. In response to the growing furor, district spokesperson Becky Carroll claimed that “the message got lost in translation, but the bottom line is, we never sent out a directive to ban the book…. We’re not saying remove these from buildings altogether.”

The emails recently obtained by Jarrett Dapier, a student at the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library & Information Science, tell quite a different story from what CPS claimed publicly. Dapier has shared the email scans directly with us, but most of the information below can also be found in the Chicago Reader story. The 45 pages of emails are also available for viewing on the website of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The internal communications began in the wee hours of Saturday, March 9, 2013, when the director of the Austin-North Lawndale network of elementary schools emailed Annette Gurley, CPS’ Chief of Teaching and Learning. The network director, Chandra James, attached two scans from Persepolis and told Gurley: “In my opinion it is not appropriate at all. Please let me know if I can pull the book from my schools.” Most CPS elementary schools comprise grades K-8, and at the time Persepolis was being taught in some seventh and eighth grade classes. Naturally, school libraries across the district also held copies of the book.

Later that Saturday morning, Gurley told James to “by all means, pull them” and then emailed Director of Literacy Cynthia Green to ask which other schools had received copies of Persepolis. Gurley stressed that “we want the books pulled and taken to the network office so the chief can ensure the books are out off the claasrooms [sic].” Green quickly responded that she had the book erased from the seventh grade curriculum framework as well.

By the next day, Sunday, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had been looped into the email chain. Gurley again thanked James for “reporting the inappropriateness of the content of the novel Persepolis.” Byrd-Bennett then asked Gurley: “Who in the [Teaching and Learning] office approved this to be added to the [recommended reading] list?” Gurley passed the question on to Green, who said the curriculum framework was developed under a previous Director of Literacy. Gurley then reported to Byrd-Bennett that she was working “to identify the person(s) so that I can meet with them.” At 5:26 Sunday evening, Byrd-Bennett replied that “someone is in jeopardy bc if [sic] this. Need a name.”

Later that night, Gurley sent an email that was to be distributed to all CPS network chiefs, both elementary and high school. The message began: “It has come to our attention that the novel ‘Persepolis’ contains some graphic language and content that is inappropriate for children.” Although Gurley did not specifically say that library copies were to be removed along with classroom copies, she did say that “it is imperative that we remove the books from the classroom and from the school, to decrease the likelihood of the books getting into the hands of students.” This is most likely where the Lane Tech principal got the understandable impression that library copies were to be removed, and indeed it’s not at all clear whether Gurley and other administrators yet realized that they couldn’t give that order in accordance with district policy.

By noon on Monday the 11th, Gurley had met with several administrators including the former Director of Literacy who had been implicated as the person who may have approved Persepolis as recommended reading. That same day a letter was released to all schools informing them of what was now termed a “book recall.” Sometime between Monday and Wednesday Gurley heard from Director of Education Policy and Procedures Tony Howard, who apparently pointed out the steamrolling of the district’s library collection development policy. On Wednesday the 13th Gurley forwarded Howard the letter that already been distributed to schools, and he sent back “an edited version…to ensure that the language is aligned to” the policy regarding libraries. The district appears to have no policy whatsoever regarding challenges to materials used in class.

On Wednesday evening Gurley sent out a “clarification” to an email chain that now included over 30 people, saying that “we are pulling the book Persepolis from classroom colllections [sic] only at this time, as the policy that I forwarded in the previous email makes it very clear that librarians have the discretion to purchase controversial texts.” Nevertheless Gurley seemed to think of the policy as only a temporary stumbling block and assured her colleagues that it “does not mean that the texts cannot be removed” from libraries as well.

The following day, Thursday the 14th, was when the Persepolis directive was first made public with the leaked Lane Tech email. Late that afternoon Leslie Boozer, then chief of the high school network that includes Lane Tech, reported that she was “getting pushback from my schools” about the removal. She pointed out that the book is part of the curriculum in AP French, AP English Literature, and AP Comparative Government. Boozer warned that if the removal plan went forward, “it will become very newsworthy at my schools” — adding that her staff had already been approached by a Lane Tech student reporter while they were rounding up copies of the book. Gurley responded that unless Byrd-Bennett said otherwise, the book could remain in AP classes but was “developmentally inappropriate for many of our younger students.”

On the morning of Friday the 15th, a district press officer emailed Gurley asking for “one or two talking points” to feed reporters who were asking why Persepolis was removed from high school classrooms. Gurley’s reply likely didn’t help to dispel concerns:

After viewing graphic illustrations and and sexually explicit language, the decision was made to pull the book from all classroom libraries for Grades K-12 for concern that some students would not be developmentally capable of handling the mature content…. We do not look at this as a ‘bad’ book. However, the languagcontent [sic] is graphic for adolescents.

After this illuminating journey through the cold bureaucracy of Chicago Public Schools, the final email that the district released to Dapier is downright farcical. It is a response from Teaching and Learning Chief Gurley to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Deputy Director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Caldwell-Stone had apparently contacted Gurley by telephone on the morning of March 15th. The body of Gurley’s email reads in its entirety:

Thank you for expressing your concerns during our conversation earlier today. Below is the essence of the communication that was sent out to principals to correct the misconception that the book Persepolis is to be banned in our classrooms.

[‘]Earlier this week, you received an email from the Office of Network Supports about removing Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi from the schools. Please disregard it.[’]

Interestingly enough, when OIF and the Freedom to Read Foundation sent a formal FOIA request for documents pertaining to the ban back in 2013, they “only received the directives and letters that had already been publicly disclosed, and a copy of the agenda for the chief of schools meeting on March 11,” none of which helped to illuminate the whys and wherefores of the book challenge or whether CPS administrators were aware of their own policy on removing books from libraries. We may never know why CPS withheld the administrative emails then, only to release them to Dapier two years later — but we’re certainly glad he kept digging!

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