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 

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