When all hell broke loose two years ago over the yanking of Persepolis from the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Emanuel’s press handlers wrote it off as a misunderstanding. They said some bureaucrat in the bowels of the central office misunderstood what he or she had been directed to do and things got out of control.
“The message got lost in translation, but the bottom line is, we never sent out a directive to ban the book,” Becky Carroll, the CPS spokeswoman at the time, told reporters.
Well, guess what? It didn’t really happen like that at all.
I know this thanks to Jarrett Dapier, a graduate student in library sciences who sent a Freedom of Information Act request to CPS seeking information on the issue.
To his surprise, the central office sent him copies of internal e-mails that high-ranking officials—including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO—wrote each other regarding the book.
As you might recall, on March 15, 2013, the story broke that CPS officials had ordered principals to round up copies of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s highly regarded graphic novel of a young woman coming of age in Iran after the 1979 revolution.
Dapier wanted to include the episode in a paper he was writing on school censorship. So he submitted his FOIA request. And after a long delay, CPS responded with the e-mails.
“I got it around Christmas,” says Dapier. “Talk about a great Christmas present.”
The first e-mail was sent at 12:54 AM on Saturday, March 9, 2013, from Chandra James to Annette Gurley. James was the network chief for a group of elementary schools on the west side. And Gurley is the chief officer of Teaching and Learning, which oversees curricula.
“I’ve attached a copy of 2 pages from the book ‘Persepolis’ that was sent to schools,” James wrote. “In my opinion it is not appropriate at all. Please let me know if I can pull the book from my schools.”
Her e-mail included attachments to an image from Persepolis that showed a prison guard urinating on a prisoner, and parts in the book where the words “bastard” and “fucked” are used.
At 10:13 AM on Saturday, Gurley responded: “By all means, pull them.”
On Sunday, Gurley sent an e-mail directing aides to “coordinate the effort to collect the books at the network office, so there is no danger of the books mistakenly getting assigned to students.”
At 11:18 that morning, Byrd-Bennett weighed in, writing Gurley: “We need to reach out. Tell Becky and have her get in front of this.”
That would be Carroll, who was widely seen as the CPS liaison to the mayor’s office. Currently she runs Chicago Forward, a political action committee working to elect aldermen loyal to the mayor.
Byrd-Bennett also wrote Gurley: “Who in the office approved this to be added to the list?”
Thus the focus spread from getting the book out of the classroom to blaming someone for putting it there in the first place.
It’s also important to note that no one in this e-mail chain discussed the content of the book or its meaning. In fact, there’s no indication they had ever read or even heard of it.
Later that Sunday, Gurley replied to Byrd-Bennett: “I’ve asked the directors to identify the person(s) so that I can meet with them. Will keep you posted.”
To which Byrd-Bennett responded: “Someone is in jeopardy bc [o]f this. Need a name.”
Gurley sent an e-mail to Teresa Walter, another central office staffer, asking if she knew who approved the reading list. Walter responded that she didn’t. “I will follow up . . . to find out—and to also put in place a ‘second sweep’ review of recommended titles.”
Meaning they were looking for other “inappropriate” books.
On Monday, March 11, Gurley met with network chiefs. Word was sent to principals to order their teachers and librarians to collect the books.
The first blowback came that Wednesday—March 13—when network chiefs wrote Gurley to tell her there are rules in place that keep them from simply taking books out of school libraries.
Gurley e-mailed a clarification to network chiefs: “While we can collect the copies of the book from the classrooms, we cannot collect them from the school libraries without going through the process outlined in the policy.”
By Thursday, Lane Tech students were protesting the book’s removal, and bloggers and reporters from around the world were writing about book banning in Chicago.
“I’m sorry to ask for clarification,” Leslie Boozer, the north-side network chief, e-mailed Gurley. “I’m getting some pushback from my schools as [aides] are working to collect the text. This book is utilized in AP French, AP English Lit, and AP Comparative Government.”
“Can we discuss this further or is it an absolute?” Boozer went on to ask. “Could we allow schools to use it if parents sign a permission slip?”
To which Gurley responded: “Thank you, Leslie. Unless I hear otherwise from the CEO, the AP courses would be the exception.”
On Friday, the directive to yank Persepolis was still very much in place. “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,” Gurley wrote a CPS law department official.
That’s pretty much as far as the released e-mails go. But they show enough: the official CPS explanation of what happened falls in the category of fiction.
Far from being the confused misinterpretation of a lowly bureaucrat, the order to get Persepolis out of the schools was a clear-as-a bell mandate issued from the top.
I realize this happened two years ago. And it’s far from the worst thing that Mayor Emanuel’s administration has done to the schools.
Still, it’s upsetting to think that our schools are run by ass-covering bureaucrats who, when faced with controversial content, don’t even show the slightest interest in reading a book they’re gearing up to ban.