Chicago Teachers Union blasts censorship by school administrators

Students and teachers at Chicago’s Lane Tech on March 15 demonstrated at the school to protest an order from Chicago Public School (CPS) administrators to ban Persepolis, a graphic novel, from classrooms and libraries. The ban affected elementary schools, middle schools, and high school.

Persepolis was written by Marjane Satrapi who grew up in Iran during the 1980s. Satrapi’s novel is largely autobiographical and tells the story of what it was like to grow up during the early stages of the country’s Islamist revolution. It was originally published in France, where Satrapi now lives, and later translated into English. Newsweek ranked it as number five on its list of the ten best fiction books of the first decade of the 21st century.

Its awards include the 2003 Fernando Buesa Peace Prize (Spain), New York Times Notable Books, and the Angouleme International Comics Festival Prize (France).

The Chicago Teachers Union joined students, parents, teachers from throughout the school district in condemning CPS’s censorship of the award-winning book.

“We are surprised Persepolis: A Story of Childhood would be banned by the Chicago Public School system,” said Kristine Mayle, CTU’s financial secretary. “The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran. We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this– at a time when they are closing schools–because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.  There’s a lot of merit in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel. Not only is it thoughtful, it can be instructive for young people, especially girls. Persepolis can help our students begin to think about the world around them. We hope CPS has not reverted back to the 1950s.”

An e-mail from administrators sent on March 14 ordered principals at schools where Persepolis was being taught or where copies were in the library to confiscate the books.

The next morning about 150 students and teachers at Lane Tech, a magnate college preparatory high school, gathered outside of the school holding signs that read “Banning Books, Closing Schools. . ., What’s Next?”; “Homework for CPS: Read the First Amendment”; “Banning Books. . . Really Rahm; and many more.

“We still don’t know who made the decision or why it was made,” said Steve Parsons, a teacher at Lane Tech and a CTU delegate to DNA Info.com Chicago at the demonstration. “English  teachers weren’t asked their professional opinion. Nobody was included. That is  not how democracy works. If we had received a message that said, ‘After much reflection….’ There  was nothing. They came in the middle of a school week, in the middle of the day.  It was so arbitrary.”

After the demonstration and after CPS received a flood of other protests about the book’s banning, the administration began backing away from its original ban.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of CPS, said in a memo to clarify the district’s ban that “Persepolis was appropriate for juniors, seniors, and advanced placement students,” but not for seventh grade students and that the ban would remain if effect for them. She added that CPS would continue to evaluate whether the graphic novel was appropriate for grades eight through ten. She also said that the ban on the book in school libraries would be lifted.

CTU responded that Byrd-Bennett’s clarification was insufficient.

“CPS is now claiming Persepolis is banned only from the seventh grade classroom but will be available in school libraries. Unfortunately 160 elementary schools don’t have libraries—and they know that,” said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin.  “Enough with the Orwellian doublespeak. We support our educators who are fighting to ensure their students have access to ideas about democracy, freedom of speech, and self-image.  Let’s not go backward in fear.”

Byrd-Bennett said that the directive to ban Persepolis was issued because the graphic novel contained images of torture that were not appropriate for young students.

“It’s shameful. I cannot believe something like this can happen in the United States of America,” said Satrapi in a telephone interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Referring to her book, Satrapi said the images questioned by the administrators “are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame. I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh graders have brains and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the Internet. It’s a black and white drawing and I’m not showing something extremely horrible. That’s a false argument. They have to give a better explanation.”

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