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Chicago schools order book on Iran out of some classes

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago Public Schools ignited a controversy this week by ordering that "Persepolis," a critically acclaimed graphic novel about a girl growing up in Iran at the time of the Islamic revolution, be removed from some classrooms.

CPS Chief Executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett said on Friday that the district was not banning the book, by Marjane Satrapi, but had decided that it was "not appropriate for general use" in the seventh grade curriculum.

"If your seventh grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms," Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. She said the book had "powerful images of torture" and that the district was considering whether the book should be included in the curriculum of eighth through 10th grades.

The statement was sent as a clarification, since Chicago public school teachers received different instructions earlier this week telling them the book was to be removed from libraries.

Kristen Starr, librarian at Lane Tech, a selective enrollment school for students in grades seven through 12, said she was told Wednesday that the book must be removed from all classrooms and libraries.

Christopher Dignam, principal of Lane Tech, sent an email to staff Thursday confirming the order. The email said CPS personnel were directed to physically go to each school by Friday and collect the novel from all classrooms and libraries, and even make sure it had not been checked out by a student or teacher. Dignam in his email said he was not given a reason.

"It's an unprecedented event in my career," said Starr, who has been with the school system since 1994. "We've never been instructed to take a book off the shelves."

Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for CPS, said that the original instruction on Wednesday "was simply a poorly written communication. Schools should never have been instructed to remove the book from their libraries."

At a rain-soaked after-school rally organized by opponents of the ban that drew about 50 students, parents and teachers, Neive Espy, a 17-year-old junior at Lane Tech who has read the book, held a sign that read: "Iran + CPS Two Dictators."

"I think CPS should have faith in our intelligence," Espy said. "You need to start informing kids at a young age about the truth about the world."

Steve Parsons, an advanced placement psychology teacher at Lane Tech and a union representative, asked, "What's next? Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'?"

"Persepolis," published in 2003 in the United States and made into a film in 2007, is banned in Iran, Tunisia and Lebanon, said Paul Bogaards, spokesman for Pantheon, the book's publisher.

A statement from Satrapi, who is currently in Germany, was not immediately available.

Starr said she and other librarians contacted CPS after hearing the order and were told Thursday that the books could be kept in the libraries.

"There's no reason it should be removed," said Acacia O'Connor, coordinator of the Kids Right to Read Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "It has been taught for a long time and it's an award-winning book."

O'Connor said "Persepolis" was challenged at least once before, in 2009 by a parent in the state of Washington for being too violent and sexually charged, but the book was retained by the school district.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which has been battling CPS over expected school closings, issued a statement noting that while CPS now says the book will be available in libraries, 160 elementary schools don't have libraries.

"Enough with the Orwellian doublespeak," said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. "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."

(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by James B. Kelleher, Cynthia Johnston, Steve Orlofsky and Leslie Adler)

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