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Commack School District removes novel from required high school reading list

"Persepolis," an award-winning graphic novel.

"Persepolis," an award-winning graphic novel. Credit: Newsday/Nicholas Spangler

Commack High School students are no longer required to read "Persepolis," an award-winning comic book-style novel about an Iranian girl’s coming of age during that country’s 1978 revolution, after school district officials said it was not age-appropriate.

"That book will be removed and replaced," said Jordan Cox, the district's executive director of instructional services, at a June 8 community forum. In an email, Superintendent Donald James said the book, which was required for the district's roughly 500 11th graders this year, "will not be required reading for future classes but will still be available on our reading lists and available for electives." District officials engage in an "annual review of many books to determine curricular as well as age-appropriate suitability," the statement continued.

The statements came as the district faces pressure from parents over critical race theory, an approach to analyzing systemic racism school leaders had repeatedly said they did not support or teach, though Cox said in an interview that parent complaints had nothing to do with the decision to remove the book from the district's required reading.

Cox said the decision had to do with the "graphic nature" of some parts of the book, though he declined to specify on the record what those are. He said James made the decision months ago after consulting with a team of educators that included Cox, curriculum specialists, the director of English, the principal and a teacher.

Charles Schulz, who is listed on the district website as secondary school English director, said in an interview Thursday he had argued for keeping the book, which he viewed as valuable resource. "We know how much the students respond to it, we know how much meaning they take from it, especially when it comes to learning about the world outside Commack and Long Island."

Schulz, a Commack graduate who has taught or worked as an administrator in the district for 16 years, said James told him Wednesday he would be reassigned to the elementary level. District spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch said she could not discuss personnel matters.

Students and alumni criticized the decision to remove the book at a public forum and at a Board of Education meeting held last week in the Commack High School auditorium.

"This book is not inappropriate," Lakxshanna Raveendran, 16, a junior, said at the June 8 forum.

She wants every English class to read at least one book related to issues faced by people of color, a move she said would address "blind spots in our curriculum," which consists of many books written by men, many of them white.

In an interview, Raveendran, who is of South Asian descent and has attended district schools since second grade, said she had been "starved of representation" for most of her school career. She and her friends looked forward to reading "Persepolis" this year, she said: "We were really excited — it was something we could actually connect to."

"Persepolis," set in the 1970s and '80s in Iran and Europe, follows a girl from a mostly secular, affluent family as Islamic fundamentalists win sway over Iranian mores and eventually the machinery of state.

Some parents at last week’s Commack events described it as pornographic. One of its 341 pages depicts torture of a mostly naked guerrilla by the shah’s secret police. The book also depicts adolescent or young adult drug use.

Michiko Clark, a spokeswoman for book publisher Pantheon, the book’s publisher, said in an email that "We do not believe any school district should be discouraging students from reading this landmark work." The book has sold 3 million copies, including 540,000 to schools and libraries, she said.

On video of last week’s district events, no parents complained about other books that appear on the international baccalaureate syllabus.

They include "The Things They Carried," which describes in minute detail the mutilated body of a Viet Cong killed in combat; "The Handmaid’s Tale," which includes scenes of ritualized rape; and "The Catcher in the Rye," which includes profane language.

Educators will conduct a full review of district literature over the summer. And James, responding to questions from students at the events, said "there are ways to teach the perspective without the graphic nature" for classroom texts. "I understand that kids see graphic things all the time, but it doesn’t need to be brought to them in the classroom."

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