Payton College Prep reprinting yearbooks to remove photos of students making ‘OK’ sign

Officials at the top-rated high school opted to spend more than $22,000 to wipe photos of the gesture associated with white nationalism.

SHARE Payton College Prep reprinting yearbooks to remove photos of students making ‘OK’ sign
Walter Payton College Prep, 1034 N. Wells St.

Walter Payton College Prep, 1034 N. Wells St.

Sun-Times file photo

Administrators at Chicago’s top-ranked high school have decided to reprint their 2018-19 yearbooks after discovering it contained several photos of students making the controversial “OK” hand gesture that has come to be associated with white nationalism.

Walter Payton College Prep Principal Timothy Devine said Wednesday the students spotted flashing the sign in six photos were just having “innocent fun,” but the school decided to spend $22,485 to remove the photos and reprint because “truly repugnant groups are co-opting this symbol and our Payton community will not be associated with those groups or their vile messages or actions.

”While the intent of the usage of the symbol in the photographs was playful, the effect on readers can reasonably be quite different, given that the hand gesture has more recently also become a symbol of white supremacy,” Devine wrote in a letter to families.

Internet trolls on the reputed alt-right forum 4chan latched onto the seemingly innocuous gesture a few years ago, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in “a deliberate attempt to ‘trigger liberals’ into overreacting to a gesture so widely used that virtually anyone has plausible deniability built into their use of it in the first place.”

While many may remember the gesture from the popular adolescent “circle game,” white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members have increasingly used it “to signal their presence to the like-minded,” the law center notes, with the hand formation signifying WP for “white power.”

“What was once solely a playful symbol is in the process of being usurped by hate groups,” Devine said.

The principal did not respond to a direct request for comment. Chicago Public Schools officials referred to his letter.

The school will cover the reprinting cost by “delaying the purchase of new technology for the yearbook program, reducing costs associated with our admissions activities and by reducing summer administrative programs,” Devine wrote.

The reprinted yearbooks won’t arrive for at least four weeks. Before that, students will receive blank signature booklets that can be inserted into the new books.

Payton’s decision to reprint, first reported by CWBChicago, comes little more than a week after 18 photos of students making the gesture pushed suburban school district officials to reprint 1,750 copies of Oak Park and River Forest High School’s yearbook at a cost of $53,794.

And that was just days after the Cubs banned a fan from Wrigley Field for life for flashing the sign during a live broadcast behind NBC Sports Chicago analyst Doug Glanville, who is African American.

The students making the gesture in the Payton photos come from “a broad cross-section of racial backgrounds, genders, ages, religions, and clubs/activities,” Devine wrote.

Payton has consistently ranked among the top high schools in the state and country since opening at 1034 N. Wells St. in 2000. It most recently was named last month by U.S. News as Illinois’ best high school and the ninth best in the nation.

Those elite rankings have helped make the selective-enrollment high school Chicago’s most difficult one to get into, with a sizable portion of this year’s hopeful applicants needing to ace the city’s entrance exam for admission. About 1,100 students are enrolled.

Read the full letter from Payton Principal Timothy Devine:

Payton Students, Faculty, and Parents,

Our values matter.At Payton, we define these values as compassion, character, curiosity, and courage.And it is not enough to just speak of these values; we must act on them as well.

For years, the Circle Game has been a playful game, where a person makes the ‘ok’ sign with their hand and holds it below their waist.The simple goal is to get someone to look at the gesture.The game has had a bit of a resurgence this year.

Recently, the well-known website, 4chan, contended that the hand gesture was a symbol for white power.In the past two months—in mid-March and in May—usage of the symbol as a sign of white supremacy has been reported in popular media, one instance occurred when the murderer of 51 Muslims in New Zealand displayed the symbol in court, and another occurred when a fan at a Chicago Cubs game displayed the symbol during a post-game broadcast (the Cubs have since identified the fan and have indefinitely banned him from attending games).

What was once solely a playful symbol is in the process of being usurped by hate groups.

Our yearbook for the 2018-2019 school year contains six photographs of students displaying the ‘ok’ sign.Let me be clear: it is fully believed that the intent of the students in the photographs was to be playful, as the Circle Game was actively being played around many campuses this academic year, including ours.The students in the images, the photographers, and students who have actively played the game throughout the year represent a broad cross-section of racial backgrounds, genders, ages, religions, and clubs/activities.Again, there is no reason to believe that the use of the symbol was anything but innocent fun.

Further, it is important to note that our yearbook staff has designed a wonderful yearbook.They are to be commended for their work.To be sure, documenting the annual life of a school is lengthy and complicated.The yearbook staff has worked diligently to produce a commemoration that captures well our community’s year together.They sent the layout to the publisher on April 1st, just days after the use of the symbol in New Zealand and well before the use of the symbol at the Cubs game.This timeline is important because it shows that the morphing of the symbol’s meaning was just becoming known to a mainstream audience after the yearbook was finalized.

So, while the intent of the usage of the symbol in the photographs was playful, the effect on readers can reasonably be quite different, given that the hand gesture has more recently also become a symbol of white supremacy.Of course, such symbology is completely antithetical to the values of our community; it is repugnant and odious and has no place at all in our Payton, American, and world communities.Period.

Our school resources and official publication will not be the home to symbology that is now being associated with white supremacy.Further, we cannot subject a small handful of our students to potential targeting, now or in the future, for having innocently used this symbol in a game.As such, we need to reprint the yearbook to eliminate those particular photographs.It will cost $22,485 for the reprint and will take the vendor 4-5 weeks to deliver the reprinted books.We have worked with the publisher and are thankful to them for significantly reducing the costs of the reprint from the original printing charge, so that the financial impact would be as limited as possible.We will gather these funds by delaying the purchase of new technology for the yearbook program, reducing costs associated with our admissions activities, and by reducing summer administrative programs.No instructional programs, no academic resources, no positions, and no class sizes are impacted at all, and families who ordered a yearbook will pay no additional cost.Yes.The financial cost is significant, especially as we are an under-resourced school in an under-resourced district, but it is a cost we must bear.Values matter.

In the coming days, students who ordered a yearbook will receive a signature booklet from the publishing company to capture notes from friends and faculty before summer starts.Seniors will receive a communication within a few weeks about how and when to get their yearbook over the summer.Yearbooks for rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors will be distributed later.The signature pages can be inserted directly into the yearbook.

Some may disagree with this decision, contending that it was a simply a fun game and that only administrative overreach and hyper-sensitivity are making a mountain out of a molehill.It is understood that the interpretation of this symbol can be ambiguous, where different people can draw different conclusions, because the symbol’s meaning has been morphing and growing more complex in very recent months.However, as noted above and underscored here, truly repugnant groups are co-opting this symbol and our Payton community will not be associated with those groups or their vile messages or actions.Minimally, we—the school—should not and will not use school resources to advance and codify something that can be interpreted as ambiguous about where we stand on racism and religious freedom.

Others may contend that we are developing a generation of ‘soft’ students who can’t deal well with adversity; that the real world will throw them curveballs and we need to prepare them for that.First, schoolsarevery much the real world for students.Second, such a statement does not recognize the lived experiences of a large number of Payton (and Chicago) students.Many of our Grizzlies already deal with vast, varying, and very real adverse situations on a daily basis and in different locales in their lives.Despite those limitations—limitations that are often laden on them by others—our students persist.Schools should not be adding to the burdens of students’ lives.

Let me be clear: ambiguity and vacillation have enabled racism and religious persecution throughout history.We will not waver on these matters.Hate has no home here.Nor will we allow our students to be misinterpreted on such important issues or to be used as unwitting props by malicious actors.We live the 4Cs.

Sincerely,

Mr. Devine

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