Yorkville Students Resent Board’s Decision to Remove ‘Just Mercy’ from English Course Unit

A section of Yorkville High School students has slammed the school board’s decision to prohibit the use of “Just Mercy” in the English II Rhetorical Analysis course after a fresh review by the board members found it to violate the Board of Education’s policy and inappropriate for use in classroom instruction.

A Story of Justice and Redemption

Written by Bryan Stevenson, an activist American attorney and founder of Equal Justice Initiative, the book critically analyses America’s criminal justice system, with the author documenting his fight for the justice of Walter McMillian—a black man falsely accused and convicted of killing a white woman at a location in Monroeville, Alabama.

Through Stevenson’s relentless efforts, McMillian was freed in 1993 after a protracted legal battle.   

Opposed to the book, the parent first voiced a complaint regarding the book earlier this year, prompting the district’s uniform grievance procedure.

The Book Does Not Violate The Board’s Policy

However, after investigating the matter, Associate Superintendent Nick Baughman determined that using the book for the English course unit had not violated the board’s policy, with a letter to that effect sent to the parent.

“The teachers did nothing wrong,” Baughman said in an interview with the Shawlocal News Network on Sept. 28, 2023.  

“They did a thoughtful job of putting together an engaging unit of study that met the objectives for our students,” Baughman stated in the interview in response to the complaint. However, the parent appealed the determination to the Yorkville School Board.

Changed Decision Resulted in The Book’s Withdrawal

After a closed-door meeting on May 22, the Yorkville School Board recommended providing an alternative book to ‘Just Mercy’ as an option for students to comply with the Board of Education policy guidelines, adding that using the book as “anchor text” or the main text, was “unintentionally controversial.”

However, the board overturned its earlier decision on August 7 and directed the book’s withdrawal from the English course unit following majority support. Four members voted for the decision, with two voting in favor of the book.  

Parents and Students Voiced Concerns

At the Board’s meeting held on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, YHS students who opposed removing the book voiced their discontent with the board’s decision during the public comment session of the meeting, with YHS senior Alexis Barkman accusing the four members of the board who supported the decision of allowing the “opinions of a select few” to influence the school’s curriculum.

“You’re depriving us of our freedom to read and form our own opinions about the subjects you deem too controversial,” said Barkman, as quoted by the Shawlocal News.

Senior Lily Smogor was also quoted by the news outlet expressing her resentment. According to Lily, the “entire point” of including the book was to teach students to understand the author’s point and use the argument in evaluating information critically.

Her colleague student, senior Cam Duran, also accused the four board members who passed a resolution to remove the book of being “narrow-minded.”

In support of the angry students, April Zawlocki, a parent and a professor of education at the College of DuPage, opposed the decision and expressed concern over the board’s decision.

Prof. Zawlocki accused the board of “Censoring content” and denying the students the opportunities to “learn and grow,” adding that some board members focused on fulfilling political agendas instead of focusing on the best interest of students across the district.

Shawn Schumacher, one of the two board members who opposed the book’s removal, commented that the book was “age-appropriate” and needed to teach critical thinking.

READ NEXT: State Superintendent Kicked out of California School Board Meeting For Not Agreeing With Proposed Policy

‘No Balanced View’

While most parents supported protesting students, some supported the decision. Angie Griffin, a parent to one of the students who undertook the English course, defended the decision, claiming the English class had “no balanced view.”

According to Griffin, removing the book would “stop hate and division,” allowing the students to embark on “core learning,” with parent Tim Gleason deeming the book inappropriate.

The President of the board, Darren Crawford, who also voted for the book’s removal, said at the beginning of the public comment session that the board deemed the book as controversial, not fit to be “anchor text,” and violating the board’s policy. However, he reiterated that the board was against censorship.

In a brief interview with Showlocal News before the meeting, Crawford said the latest decision was reached after the board revisited the issue following a request from one of the board members to review the book for its suitability for use in the classroom.

As it stands, the book is neither banned nor censored and available in the school’s library.

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This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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