On March 14, 2013 Christopher Dignam, Principal of Lane Tech High School, sent an e-mail to his staff repeating a mandate reportedly handed down by one of Chicago public schools Network Instructional Support Leaders. That mandate required schools to remove the graphic novel Persepolis from libraries and classrooms and stop teaching the book, effective March 15. When the e-mail became public, outrage began to build among teachers and students throughout the district and in the free speech community.
Later the same day, Mr. Dignam was amended his e-mail to exclude school libraries, as Chicago school libraries have a Collection Development Policy governing materials reconsideration.
Students and teachers at Lane Tech organized a protest and read-in to speak out against the removal of the critically-acclaimed novel.
The Kids’ Right to Read Project was made aware of the controversy Wednesday evening, before the Lane Tech e-mail went public and began looking into the case. We sent a letter (.pdf) to Chicago Public Schools on Friday, March 15, shortly after CEO of schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett issued an e-mail to school principals.
Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s e-mail stated that the book was to be immediately removed from seventh grade classrooms, notwithstanding the fact that it was selected for inclusion in the seventh grade Literacy Content Framework. The letter also indicated the book’s removal in 8-10 grades until further evaluation by administrators: "We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eight through tenth grades," Ms. Byrd-Bennett wrote. For the first time, an explanation was given as to why the book was removed, namely that it contained a scene of torture and graphic language.
Though CPS administrators expressed concern over the book’s content as though it was previously unknown to them, NCAC soon discovered that Persepolis is a foundational text of the CPS-endorsed curriculum "Speak Truth to Power," created in 2011 in collaboration with the RFK Center for Human Rights. Persepolis is featured in a unit about Equal Rights, with a particular focus on violence against women.
Chicago Board of Education Law Department responded to our letter on March 20, 2013 (read the response in .pdf) asserting their perception in administration authority over curricular issues.
A Freedom of Information Act request for all records and correspondence pertaining to the decision to remove Persepolis was sent to CPS by NCAC on March 20, 2013 (available here in .pdf). The response of CPS was limited to just five documents (See the FOIA response here in .pdf). Though Illinois FOIA requires disclosure of what is not being made available, no mention was made of exluded documents, nor justification offered for their exclusion. Two previously unseen e-mails were furnished by the FOIA response:
On March 12, instructions to remove Persepolis as per a "directive given during the Chief of Schools meeting on March 11" were sent out by Natalia Szymczak to principals and Chief Area Officers in an e-mail with the subject "Book Recall Reminder."
A March 13, 2013 e-mail from CPS Chief Area Officer Annette Gurley stated: "It appears that while we can collect the copies of the book from the classrooms, we cannot collect them from the school libraries without going throguh the process outlined in the policy." No reason was given for the collection.
Though some reports have indicated an initial complaint was raised at West Side elementary on March 8, CPS continues to stonewall about how this swift, far-reaching action came to be implemented, district-wide, about a single book.