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District 203 decides against hosting Bill Ayers at Naperville North
By Bob Smith | Daily Herald Staff

Bill Ayers


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Published: 3/30/2009 11:16 AM | Updated: 3/30/2009 12:58 PM

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Faced with a firestorm of criticism, Naperville Unit District 203 leaders have canceled plans to have controversial author Bill Ayers speak to students at Naperville North High School.

Superintendent Alan Leis said Monday morning he had received more than 100 e-mails and numerous phone calls about Ayers' scheduled appearance and decided "it just wasn't appropriate. Any (educational) value here is completely lost."

"It is truly amazing the level of anger and emotion around this issue," he said.

Ayers, the co-founder of the anti-Vietnam war group the Weather Underground and currently a University of Illinois-Chicago education professor, was slated to speak April 8 to social studies students at Naperville North.

The Weather Underground was responsible for a series of bombings at public buildings during the 1960s and '70s. Ayers' notoriety had faded over the years, but his ties to President Barack Obama became an issue during the 2008 campaign and he was thrust back into the limelight.

Ayers was not scheduled to be paid to speak at the school.

Leis said he initially had spoken to other schools where Ayers had appeared and gotten very positive responses.

"I only focused on how fascinating it would be for students to talk to someone who had a role in the presidential campaign," he said.

Since then, though, he said he has done more research into Ayers' background and "it's very hard to figure out who this guy is," he said.

When criticism arose about Ayers' appearance at Naperville North, district leaders considered having him speak to students at a different venue.

But in an e-mail sent Monday to district parents, they said it became clear over the weekend that "this issue was not really about where Dr. Ayers was speaking, but that he was speaking at all. Each day, the level of emotion and outrage has seemed to increase, along with the number of e-mails and phone calls received."

The district e-mail said Ayers' scheduled appearance became a "lightning rod" both inside and outside the District 203 community and "it is clear that any value to our students would be lost in such a highly charged atmosphere and that any debate of issues or viewpoints would be overshadowed by media coverage and anger over the event itself."

The district began receiving complaints about the scheduled appearance almost immediately after the Daily Herald reported on the planned lecture early last week.

Ayers was invited to speak by Naperville North history teacher Kermit Eby, a former student of Ayers'. Only students in Eby's eighth-hour class and other students whose eighth-hour class related to Ayers' presentation were to be allowed to attend and even those students would have needed a signed parental permission slip.

District officials said they had planned to treat the lecture like an in-school field trip.

Eby also has come under fire for issuing the invitation and district officials came to his defense in their e-mail.

"What was most unfortunate was that a few directed their anger toward an outstanding high school and at a well-regarded, award-winning teacher who encourages students to think for themselves," the e-mail said.

Ayers also was slated to appear April 8 at Anderson's Bookshop in downtown Naperville but store spokeswoman Gail Wetta said that appearance also has been canceled.

Daily Herald Staff Writer Elisabeth Mistretta contributed to this report.