Tabula not 'OK,' OPRF will reprint

School board votes to expend $53,794 to remove images

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Oak Park and River Forest High School will reprint the "Tabula" yearbook after discovering that the book "contained 18 photos of clubs or teams in which students of various races, ethnicities, genders, and grades" made the upside-down OK hand gesture, which in recent months has been co-opted by people on the far right as a symbol of white supremacy. 

The decision has touched off a debate among community members about how they should navigate in a culture where acts of racism are becoming increasingly vague and ambiguous by design. 

During a special meeting on May 20 — where aspects of that debate were on full display — the District 200 school board voted 4-2 to reprint the 2018-19 yearbook, without the images, at a cost of $53,794. 

Board members Craig Iseli, Sara Spivy, Gina Harris and Jackie Moore voted in favor of reprinting the books while members Tom Cofsky and Matt Baron voted against the measure. Board member Ralph Martire was absent. 

The 1,750 books, which cost students $45 each to purchase and were paid for in advance, were originally scheduled to be distributed this week. During the May 20 meeting, D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said the cost of reprinting and shipping the modified yearbooks, which will take about three to four weeks, originally cost $85,000; however, "since Jostens [the company that prints and ships the yearbooks] is a partner with the school, they want to invest in the solution by sharing in the cost."

The superintendent said the $53,794 could be paid with money the district had originally allocated for new active learning space furniture, in case the district's Imagine OPRF master facilities plan was not approved. 

Since the board voted in favor of the plan and subsequently voted to implement a first phase of capital improvements, which would include constructing and/or retrofitting classrooms that may not need the active learning space furniture, the district stopped purchasing it. Officials instead started using the money to repair existing furniture. 

"Since we still have funds left in the furniture budget, we can use those funds to cover the one-time cost of reprinting the yearbook," Pruitt-Adams said. 

The superintendent said the district's target date for distributing the books is June 18. In the meantime, however, district officials said they'll provide students who ordered "Tabulas" with an autograph book from Jostens, which students can adhere to the pages of their yearbooks later on. 

"We have historically handed these out to seniors at the barbecue held after graduation rehearsal, in case they need more room for signatures," Pruitt-Adams explained in a May 20 email to families.  

She noted that the 18 photographs in question were taken in mid-October of last year. The pages were reviewed and shipped to the printer in early December, "before the gesture was widely known to have any association with white nationalism," she explained. 

"I want to be clear that we are not making any presumptions about students' intent in using the gesture," the superintendent said. "Regardless of intent, however, there is a real and negative impact. Many students, not only our students of color, experience this gesture as a symbol of white supremacy. Potentially subjecting our students to this trauma is simply not acceptable."

According to anti-discrimination groups, the recent controversy over the upside-down OK gesture started in 2017, when the gesture started circulating on 4Chan, an internet message board.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization that tracks hate groups and trends, described the sign on its website: 

"The social-media-driven controversy over the meaning of the well-known hand sign has arisen in part as the result of a deliberate hoax concocted on the internet message board 4chan, which, in addition to its well-earned reputation as a gateway to the racist 'alt-right,' is perhaps more broadly known as the home of trolling culture."

D200 officials said that "recent media events have heightened public awareness of the symbol's newer implications," referencing the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, where the 28-year-old Australian shooter flashed the upside down OK symbol while in court on March 16. 

Officials also pointed to the incident that involved a white man flashing the gesture behind a black sports broadcaster while he was on air at a Chicago Cubs game on May 7. The Cubs subsequently banned that fan from Wrigley Field.  

Complicating matters, however, is that the OK gesture's increasing popularity as a symbol of white supremacy has happened as the decades-old circle game seems to be experiencing a resurgence among school-age young people. 

According to the online Urban Dictionary, the game "starts out when the Offensive Player creates a circle with their thumb and forefinger, not unlike an 'A-Okay' signal, somewhere below his waist. 

"His goal is to trick another person into looking at his hand. If the Victim looks at the hand, he has lost the game, and is subsequently hit on the bicep with a closed fist, by the offensive player."

The origins of the prank are widely disputed, but many anecdotes about the game's beginnings can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s. 

 

'This is complex'

During Monday's special meeting, D200 school board members agonized over how to deal with the complicated predicament of mitigating the harm that might result from what may or may not have been a benign coincidence.  

Some community members said the expensive controversy should not be paid for by area taxpayers while others worried that the district was playing into the hands of white supremacists. 

Cofsky said the district was dealing with the hand gestures "of a bunch of goofy kids taking photos" based on events that happened after the gestures were photographed. 

"This is a complex issue," he said, noting that "the question is: Are we allowed to rewind the clock or do we move forward?" 

Baron said the roughly 50 students he saw making the hand gestures cut "across gender, race, grade, as well as activity or club type," which, he said, "is a huge distinction," adding that "the vast majority, if not all, of the gestures that I saw are the above-the-waist and/or traditional upright 'OK' version, rather than below-the-waist and/or upside-down 'OK' version, which I understand is seen more as something appropriated by white supremacists."

Cofsky and Baron, along with some parents who spoke during public comment, indicated that the district reprinting the yearbooks because of students making hand gestures that had been later expropriated by racists is a reactionary response.

"We are playing right into the hands of all the haters whose evil is at the root of this corrosive and divisive angst," Baron said. 

But many people who supported the decision to reprint the yearbooks argued that the harm to black and brown students that could result from the photos should be top of mind in a district that professes to cherish equity.  

"I, too, have seen those photos and I don't know that it matters that it's a cross-section of the community," said Spivy. "One student doing something that is offensive to another student is enough." 

Board member Gina Harris said the district should be particularly sensitive when it comes to the harms — intended or unintended — done to students of color, given the "systems we've been operating in for a very long time." 

"I am struck by how much learning there is left to do among this board, this administration, our community and our country," said board President Moore, adding that the lack of "race and racism" in the discussion about the yearbook matter "is very troubling" to her. 

"I would never want a symbol of this high school to represent for anybody harm, and that is what the potential is for having this book come out as is," she said. 

 "Tabula" staff members and parents who spoke during public comment said they learned about the district's decision to postpone the distribution of the yearbooks in the emails that were sent to families last week. 

Anderson Kennedy, an OPRF junior and "Tabula" photographer, said he was "hurt and outraged" by the fact that he and his colleagues on the yearbook staff found out about the administration's decision to postpone the yearbook in emails school officials sent out to families last week. Kennedy added that "while some choose to find offense" in the hand gesture, "others view it as what it had previously been known as — a game." 

Although Supt. Pruitt-Adams said her administration was in contact with the yearbook's adult sponsors, she conceded that, because they were working with such a short window of time to make a decision, they did not reach out to the students — an oversight she said she regrets.  

"We own that," Pruitt-Adams said. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

Reader Comments

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Les Golden  

Posted: May 26th, 2019 10:34 PM

$100 grand to remove murals. $55 K to reprint Tabula. The schools are doing an admirable job in instructing the benefits of censorship. And the taxes keep on rising without restraint.

Stacy Saunders  

Posted: May 25th, 2019 7:56 PM

The school's miscue makes people feel hated when they weren't, makes teens feel misunderstood and tainted, and makes commentators jab students for not being "angels" or needing to "take responsibility". If the school had talked to students, they would have understood how innocent, rampant, and cool the circle game was, which is why it spanned all grade levels, genders, races and ethnicities as depicted in the yearbook. The Tabula student staff perfectly understood, which is why it was included and survived the editing process. Their job is to capture the memories of the school year. Now fearful grown-ups have tarnished the memories with vague suspicions due to recent developments bringing OK into question. But OK is not (yet) universally understood as a symbol of hate (like the Nazi salute), thus it is Constitutionally protected speech. The school has a burden of proof that publishing would cause disorder to justify censorship (but hundreds of minority students on group chat say reprint is absurd). The school itself is causing unrest. Now, with each passing news story, the OK symbol will indeed be widely thought as a hate symbol, handing another victory to the alt-right. What will haters coopt next, the smiley face emoji, the American flag? We can speculate about whether a student would later regret having used the symbol (though a real future leader could easily explain their use of it and hold up Tabula as an historic document reflecting the age of innocence before tides turned), but that was not the school's first or primary concern or else they would have reached out to those students to ask their families. Instead, I believe the school has an agenda to convince people of rampant hatred against minorities at OPRF. This agenda is blinding school officials from real fact finding and measured solutions. They have used several non-incidents to fan flames of fear. The echoes of hatred are doing more harm to the community than real incidents of hatred c

Kline Maureen  

Posted: May 25th, 2019 6:06 PM

@Brian - to me, this issue (as far as the OK gesture) is more that the pictures were taken last fall, before the gesture was widely known to have this particular association (if it even is widely known, I have my doubts - I would say it's definitely not as widely known as the middle finger gesture) - Having now been through this, there should be in place a policy that says NO GESTURES of any sort will be included in photos published in the Tabula or Trapeze - whatever these gestures that were made in these photos, the bottom line is that they (at the time) were considered acceptable - so your claim that the young persons in those photos (as it has been stated included younger students, not just seniors) should "take responsibility" for their actions rings a bit false.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 25th, 2019 2:54 PM

@ Kline Maureen: These aren't kids. They are seniors in high school. Mostly all over 18 years old. Just asking, when does responsibility kick in, and the lesson of the friend circle hand signal get told by the young adult, time and time again. Some people learn and some people learn that others will clean up their mistakes. Just asking.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 25th, 2019 2:05 PM

$53,000 would have paid for how much individualized, extra one on one or small group teaching time for how many of the kids at the bottom of the so-called gap? It could have actually helped someone grasp a concept or move on with some confidence to the next level. But instead it gets blown on a book no one will even be looking at by July. Let's keep saying we are going to do something and then throw the resources to actually do it away. Big fail by the leadership. But it is only taxpayer money and they feel that can be wasted.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: May 25th, 2019 11:28 AM

as I've thought and read more, I agree that reprinting was the proper way to go - - Given the inflammatory nature of everything these days, reprinting protects students who most likely made innocent gestures from being shamed or scapegoated in the future - - but I hope that this incident leads to NEW RULES and PROCESSES so future school publications don't encounter similar situations. Though what's troubling as well is that the photos themselves are likely stored on any number of drives/clouds/etc so I think it's really impossible to completely destroy all the "evidence" - and who knows what may surface at some point down the line... Let's hope none of these kids ever plan to run or are up for appointment to any public office - it would be sad to see something surface 20 years down the line.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: May 24th, 2019 5:38 PM

The school really had no choice but to reprint them. I originally thought it would be good to put stickers over the symbols but people pointed out that makes it even more obvious who was responsible. These books will be around forever and the school doesn't want this as a stain in the future nor do they want the headache of dealing with issues for the students that made the symbols regardless of intent. I certainly hope those kids were dealt with in some way assuming there was any ill intent even if it was just to be "controversial".

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: May 24th, 2019 9:13 AM

I think OPRF acted appropriately here for all of the reasons OPRF has lready stated on the issue. But, even as a few other comments are starting to note on here, even if you think this was entirely innocent, OPRF likely did this in part to also protect the students who made the symbols. As several media reports have noted, this symbol is already starting to be pretty commonly associated with white supremacist groups. Even five years from now, when many of these kids have graduated college and are starting there professional life, this symbol could be very heavily associated as a hate symbol. Assuming these kids did have an innocent intent, those kids are not going to want these pictures hanging over their heads. This has been the right move for multiple reasons, and people opposed to it seem to be more opposed based on the idea of political correctness period rather than the real world implications of what could happen if the yearbook is published as-is.

Nick Polido  

Posted: May 24th, 2019 6:55 AM

Great we made the New York Post https://nypost.com/2019/05/24/high-school-reprints-yearbooks-after-students-seen-flashing-alleged-racist-signs/

Dave Slade from Oak Park  

Posted: May 23rd, 2019 2:40 PM

Love to get the original copy and see who these kids were. Maybe they need to have some sort of educational opportunity on this, along with their parents in attendance so they understand the consequences of their actions. Also, let the kids explain why they did what they did. Hold them accountable, and let their parents how their angels behave.

Jeremy Burton  

Posted: May 23rd, 2019 9:38 AM

I don't understand the blind support for the yearbook as is, if the school has declined to publish the yearbook with images which could irreparably damage someone's reputation down the road. I have not heard any adult make the argument that those children should have their reputations damaged by the use of that symbol (regardless of its intention), which is a fine free speech argument. I'm a little concerned that the reasoning is more along the lines of ?" no one should have their reputation damaged, regardless of their intention, by displaying symbols of white supremacy. The picture of a large group of Baraboo, Wisconsin students making the Nazi salute is not far away, either in distance or time. I believe the swastikas at OPRF made regional news, and have their apologists. I'm not sure that the school is under any legal obligation to publish a yearbook at all.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: May 23rd, 2019 1:15 AM

Stacy: You raise a very interesting point. Is OPRFHS denying students their rights to free speech guaranteed under the US Constitution? The landmark Tinker decision (1969) established that students "do not shed their%uFFFDconstitutional rights%uFFFDto freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." However, since that landmark decision the Court has seemed to back track. For instance, in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, (1988) the high court ruled that school officials can censor school-sponsored publications if their decision is "reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose." Examples that could be censored according to the high court included "? biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane?" material. Schools were under no obligation to permit speech that was "inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order." Obviously material in school newspapers as well as school yearbooks were subject (and are subject) to this standard. That said I do agree with the general thrust of your argument. IMO, what the Superintendent did with the support of the school board is ludicrous, childish and most importantly counterproductive ?" as you point out. She and they should be ashamed of themselves.They owe our students an apology.

Stacy Saunders  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 10:35 PM

As our high school policy makers seek to avoid "potential negative impact in the future", they cause real negative impact today that hurts our students, violates their Constitutional rights to free speech, and turns them into hate victims rather than leaders. Our school should seek to educate and empower our children to understand speech in context and make them more resilient (especially to unintended slights misinterpreted from a beloved "okay" symbol and ubiquitous and cool circle game prank). I expect more nuance and sophistication out of this community and this school district. Stop the authoritarian lean, stop making people jump at their own shadow and look suspiciously at their neighbors. Start by trusting our youth, start guiding them with a positive frame of the issues, not with implications that people are actively hating them when they are not, and start educating them about their own personal power. Imagine if the school asked the students how to frame the issue. Perhaps the students would have opted to insert a statement into the original yearbook as follows: "As we look back on our school year, we celebrate each other, including those we've lost and those we barely began to know. We trust in each other's best intentions and will not let cowards steal our joy, our innocence, nor diminish our fond memories of each other. We are the generation of tomorrow and today. I'm okay. You're okay. Let's take back "okay" together!" Imagine if this teachable moment raised awareness of systemic racism while also helping our children find a path to their own power.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 3:57 PM

Do a short run of altered books for those students who are offended and make the questionable books available to students who want them. I bet you will be surprised how few of the altered books are claimed. Who proof read the original art. I worked in printing for a whole lot of years and nothing ever went to press without lots of signatures and approvals. Maybe those who missed this error should bear the financial burden. Looks like a monumental cost over nothing.

Robert Wozniak from Oak Park  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 3:50 PM

The New Yorker article is interesting/depressing, but not sure it undermines the reliability of the SPLC as a source for Mr. Romain -- particularly as cited. Having said that, this decision to re-print strikes me as a knee-jerk overreaction. It really does play right into the hands of the alt-right lowlifes who take great joy in triggering/trolling. I assume it's still acceptable to use the upright OK hand gesture to signal agreement ...or after making a 3-pointer in basketball? Can we make a concerted effort to take back the hand gesture entirely? Or are we just conceding the upside down version to the alt-right?

Nick Polido  

Posted: May 22nd, 2019 1:11 PM

Mr. Romain, Please read attached New Yorker article before you use The Southern Poverty Law Center as any type of authority: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-reckoning-of-morris-dees-and-the-southern-poverty-law-center

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