District 115 moves controversial book from supplemental read to ouster in seconds

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Just Mercy is a memoir by attorney Bryan Stevenson that documents his career defending disadvantaged clients. (UC Berkeley photo)

Through nearly all of their 1-hour, 20-minute closed session meeting it appeared Yorkville School District 115 Board members were close to making parts of a controversial book a supplemental text for Yorkville High School sophomore English.

However, at the 1 hour, 18 mark of the meeting, board President Darren Crawford says that the option to use the book “Just Mercy” “as one of several supplemental excerpts” was a “no.”

Educator and Yorkville resident Mike Curtis, who listened to the entire closed session, said the board’s actions are puzzling.

“Near the end, it feels like they have come to a consensus to offer the book among a list of other titles,” Curtis said. “Then, almost out of nowhere, Darren Crawford removes ‘Option 3 (using excerpts from “Just Mercy” as curriculum)’ from discussion … All of a sudden, they are voting to adjourn with no further discussion.

“To me, the entire thing makes it obvious that four men went into that meeting with an agenda to remove the book, and they weren’t going to be stopped.”

After the Aug. 7 closed session, board members returned to open session, with board members Mike Crawford, Mike Knoll, Jason Demas and Crawford voting to remove the book. Board members Shawn Schumacher and Leslie Smoger voted against the measure. Board member Wayland Middendorf was not at the meeting.

The closed session recording was released after the Illinois Attorney General’s Office ruled that the board violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act when they talked about pulling the book from the English curriculum behind closed doors.

Illinois’ Open Meetings Acts allows for public body discussion to be done in closed session for 40 reasons, but controversial curriculum is not one of them. Public bodies are allowed to go into executive session for personnel decisions, land purchases, pending litigation and other issues that could be impeded or altered through public discussions.

Curtis said he found Crawford’s actions confusing.

“I went into the recording assuming that Darren Crawford, who used to be president of the public library board and ran on a banning books is bad agenda, kind of meekly went along with the others,” Curtis said. “He came across in the end as having a calculated agenda, aligning himself with the three who ran on book-banning agendas for some reason.

“He came into that meeting to vote to remove, and when/why he had that change of heart is the biggest missing piece of the story for me.”

Just before the decision is made to drop keeping excerpts of the “Just Mercy” text for a rhetorical analysis learning plan, Schumacher, a college professor, made an impassioned plea to keep the book as part of the sophomore English curriculum.

“I know you want to get rid of the book as a whole, but I truly believe if we’re doing a service to our students as far as (creating) good critical thinkers and being able to analyze rhetorical appeals and in the way we would want them to do so, make (“Just Mercy”) available as several options, Schumacher said.

“Just Mercy” is a memoir by attorney Bryan Stevenson that documents his career defending disadvantaged clients.

Board member Smoger was bothered that the board was considering reversing course because a parent found the book unsuitable for her child to read.

“Where is the controversial topic of next week? Where is the controversial topic of next month?” Smoger asked in the closed session. “Are we going to pull Romeo and Juliet because we’ve got teen sex, we’ve got suicide. I mean where does it end?”

Throughout the closed session, board members refer to the book as “too controversial” and “too hot.”

Later in the closed session, Smoger presented another potential curriculum controversy for the district.

“What happens when somebody walks into science class and says ‘None of this can happen because God created the universe and there’s no science. There’s no Big Bang and there was no nucleus. I’m sorry but everything you do at work is a farce because God created all of this,’” Smoger said. “Now, where do we stop?”

One board member (it is unclear who said the information during the meeting) says that “Just Mercy”, which had been moved from an anchor text that all sophomores read to one of two texts used for the rhetorical analysis segment of the sophomore English curriculum, doesn’t meet curriculum goals.

“It’s not a piece of curriculum that we should be using. I think we can find other curriculum that would find a resolution, that does the same thing without the controversy,” he said. “That takes away from learning. You have parents talking about this. There are other books out there that can do (rhetorical analysis).”

“I think it is too hot, too hot for this day and age,” another board member commented. “I’d say back in 2018, this book would have been fine.”

Mary Grzywa, who was one of the people who alerted the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to the potential Open Meetings Act violation and listened to the closed-session recording, said some board members missed the point when it was brought up that the book got some unlikely kids talking in class.

“The classroom discussion surrounding “Just Mercy” is described as creating the interest in students who never spoke in class to speak up,” Grzywa said. “The kids who objected to the book content didn’t like what was said, and the board didn’t pick up on the benefit of using material that inspires interest and involvement of normally silent kids.

“Instead, they focused on the teacher’s so-called failure to prevent the discussion about a controversial topic. Controversy apparently being anything that hurts the feelings of a few. To me, it is significant that the board ignored the fact that this book inspired usually silent kids to speak up.”

One board member said that some students he talked to said they got targeted for talking against the book’s content.

“’By having an opinion about that book in class, I got obliterated,’” he related from the students. “It gave them the confidence to go ahead and backlash on whatever they had to say.”

“Just Mercy” is still available in the Yorkville High School library.