Yorkville High School Y115 students blast board members for removing book from English class

Yorkville High School senior Alexis Barkman speaks before the Yorkville School Board on Sept. 28, 2023 in the school library. Barkman and other YHS students criticized the board for its decision to prohibit a book from being taught in an English class.

YORKVILLE – A group of Yorkville High School students blasted the four Yorkville school board members who voted to prohibit use of the book “Just Mercy” in an English class, during a board meeting on Sept. 25.

“By allowing the opinions of a select few to influence what is taught in our classrooms, you’re sending the message that their beliefs are more important that the quality of our education,” YHS senior Alexis Barkman told the board.

“You’re depriving us of our freedom to read and form our own opinions about the subjects you deem too controversial,” Barkman said. “You are failing our students.”

Earlier this year, the parent of a student in the English II Rhetorical Analysis course complained about use of Bryan Stevenson’s book, which takes a critical look at America’s criminal justice system, triggering the district’s uniform grievance procedure.

Initially, the school board decided on May 22 to allow the book to remain as the “anchor text” for the class with the proviso that an alternative text for the class to be offered.

But at its Aug. 7 meeting, the board changed its decision on a 4-2 vote, directing that the book may no longer be used in the course.

Those voting in favor of removing the book from the class included board President Darren Crawford and board members Jason Demas, Mike Knoll and Mike Houston.

Those voting no were board members Leslie Smogor and Shawn Schumacher. Board member Jason Senffner was absent and has since resigned.

The students, many of whom have already taken the course, told the board they objected to the book being pulled based on the complaint of a single individual. They lauded their teachers for what they learned using the book.

“Listen to the trusted teachers who put together this curriculum; who strive to make the students in Yorkville better,” senior Hailey Bermudez told the board.

“The entire point of its inclusion was to teach students to understand the author’s argument and how to use that understanding to critically evaluate information,” said senior Lily Smogor, daughter of the board member.

“Our wonderful teachers show us how to look deeper into a text, to examine how the information is presented to us and what that means,” Smogor said.

At times the students’ comments touched on the national debate over how racial issues are addressed in the schools.

“Are we Florida now?” senior Cam Duran asked the board rhetorically. “Everything Yorkville prides itself on will be destroyed.”

“I don’t want Yorkville to be censoring and banning books,” junior Ellie Fapp said. “You are effectively tying our teachers’ hands,” she continued, describing the four board members who had voted to remove the book as “narrow-minded.”

Parents and other adults also addressed the board, and while most sided with the students, some expressed support for the board’s decision.

“My son was in that class and there was no balanced view,” Angie Griffin said. “I support your decision.”

“We don’t need to fuel the fire,” Chuck DiVito said. “This is an opportunity to stop hate and division. Let’s get back to core learning.”

Tim Gleason cited a goal in the course description to support “culturally responsive educational practices” as evidence of the book being inappropriate.

However, parent April Zawlocki, a professor of education at the College of DuPage, questioned the board’s motives for pulling the book from the class.

“I’m not confident that some of these new board members are concerned with the best interests of the students in this district, but rather are more concerned with fulfilling a political agenda,” Zawlocki said. “Censoring content, which is what the board has done here, is removing opportunities for students to learn and grow.”

In a brief interview prior to the meeting, Crawford said he had read the book.

“I feel it’s a great book. I think its chaotic in the way it’s structured, interspersed with stories that make it disjointed,” Crawford said.

Asked why the school board had revisited the issue in the first place, he said that one of the board members had requested the review but declined to say who.

Demas, Houston and Knoll declined to comment, both before and after the meeting.

Schumacher and Smogor said they stood by their votes to allow the book to be taught in class.

“The book is age-appropriate and we need to teach critical thinking,” Schumacher said.

At the start of the public comment period, Crawford told the crowd that the book has not been banned and is available in the school library. “The board is against censorship,” Crawford said.

However, Crawford said the board had found the book to be controversial, in violation of board policy, and not suitable for use as an anchor text.

Yorkville High School students who spoke before the Yorkville School Board on Sept. 25, 2023 at the high school library listen to the discussion about the board's decision to prohibit use of the book "Just Mercy" in an English class.