‘Just Mercy’ - What’s the book at the center of controversy in Yorkville about?

'Just Mercy' by Bryan Stevenson is being used in the Yorkville High School English II Rhetorical Analysis course.

YORKVILLE – The Yorkville School District 115 Board has decided that the book “Just Mercy” is too controversial to be taught in the Yorkville High School English II Rhetorical Analysis course.

So, what’s the book about?

Author Bryan Stevenson’s memoir centers on the story of Walter McMillian, a Black man who was falsely accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

Stevenson began representing the man in the late 1980′s while McMillian was sitting on death row. Through Stevenson’s effort’s, McMillian was released in 1993.

The book “aggregates and personalizes the struggle against injustice in the story of one activist lawyer,” according to the New York Times review of “Just Mercy” when it was published in 2014.

“Stevenson uses McMillian’s case to illustrate his commitment both to individual defendants ... and to endemic problems in American juris­prudence,” according to the Times review.

“Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court,” according to the review.

Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Just Mercy” was made into a 2019 movie starring Michael B. Jordan.

Yorkville High School’s English faculty selected the book as an “anchor text” for a class that is designed to promote critical thinking.

“This book matched all of our criteria: appropriate rigor, content which allows for rich discussion and connected outside readings, high interest for readers and a suitable length,” according to the course description.

Earlier this year, a parent’s objection to the book triggered the district’s uniform grievance procedure.

Associate Superintendent Nick Baughman investigated the complaint and determined that no board policy had been violated. A letter to that effect was sent to the parent over the signature of then-Superintendent Tim Shimp.

“The teachers did nothing wrong,” Baughman said in an interview later. “They did a thoughtful job of putting together an engaging unit of study that met the objectives for our students.”

The parent appealed the decision to the Yorkville School Board and the board discussed the matter in closed session before issuing a decision on May 22.

“The Board of Education acknowledges that using ‘Just Mercy’ as an anchor text to teach the English II unit was unintentionally controversial; therefore to ensure compliance with BOE policy the Board of Education is recommending adding a second text in addition to ‘Just Mercy’ as an option for students to choose,” according to a statement from the board.

“I do see both sides for this,” board President Darren Crawford said at the time. “We’re just trying to give options.”

However, the board subsequently removed the option of reading “Just Mercy” as part of the course at its Aug. 7 meeting.

On a 4-2 vote, the board directed that the book may no longer be used in the course, although Crawford emphasized that it will continue to be available in the school library and has not been banned by the board.

Those voting in favor of removing the book from the class included 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.

According a statement released by Crawford as well as the meeting minutes, Knoll and Houston deemed the book “too controversial.”

However, why the board revisited the issue and reversed its decision remains unclear. The discussions were held in closed session.

Crawford said one board member asked for a review, but would not say who. Demas, Houston and Knoll have declined to comment.

The four who voted to remove the book are new to the board, elected in the April 4 balloting.

At the board’s Sept. 25 meeting, a parade of YHS students blasted the board for its decision during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Parents and other adults also spoke, with most siding with the students while a few expressed support for the board’s decision.

Speakers opposed to the board’s decision pointedly asked the board members to explain their rationale for pulling the book from the course, but in keeping with board policy they did not respond.

Four newly elected members of the Yorkville School District Y115 Board of Education prepare to take the oath of office on May 8, 2023 at the Yorkville High School library. They are, from left, Jason Demas, Darren Crawford, Michael Knoll and Michael Houston.