Metro-East News

Social worker died from stress over racial complaint against superintendent, lawyer says

Child’s love of fashion inspires nonprofit to help children in crisis

Yvette Hicks, a social worker at High Mount School in Swansea, is opening nonprofit YaYa’s House of Fashion that will combine her granddaughter's love of fashion and Hicks’ passion for helping children. In the near future, it will offer free cloth
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Yvette Hicks, a social worker at High Mount School in Swansea, is opening nonprofit YaYa’s House of Fashion that will combine her granddaughter's love of fashion and Hicks’ passion for helping children. In the near future, it will offer free cloth

The beginning of this school year at High Mount School was particularly stressful for social worker Yvette Hicks.

She told a friend on the phone Friday night that she felt ostracized and stressed after making a racial discrimination complaint to the school board about Superintendent Mark Halwachs. In May, Hicks filed a complaint to the school board, stating Halwachs didn’t want black children photographed for a newspaper story about school resource officers.

During that conversation, her attorney said, she collapsed from a stroke that would take her life.

“I must honestly say it feels great to be back with my students. I missed them and they missed me. These kids are amazing,” Hicks wrote on her Facebook page Friday morning. “They keep me trying to be the best me that I can be. Being an educator is about growth. Best job ever!!!”

Hours later, Hicks was in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis fighting for her life. She died Tuesday morning.

Hicks worked as a social worker at High Mount School for 18 years, said Jason Caraway, Hicks’ attorney. For years, she was the only African-American employee in the district, Caraway said. The district is composed of 35 percent minority students.

On May 1, Hicks was among a group who met to prepare for a Belleville News-Democrat story about school resource officers. Halwachs, in the presence of School Resource Officer and Swansea Police Officer Cheryl Venorsky, Principal George Wilkerson and Hicks, allegedly said he didn’t want the BND photographer to take pictures of “black kids” for the story.

During a phone conversation with Halwachs on Wednesday, a BND reporter asked whether he made that statement. Halwachs replied, “No, I did not.”

Venorsky referred questions to her boss, Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson, who declined to comment.

Wilkerson declined to comment. “You will have to talk to Mr. Halwachs about that,” he said when contacted by a reporter, then hung up.

During an investigation of Hicks’ complaint by School Board President Debra Wolf, Hicks was interviewed a second time on Aug. 7, just days before school resumed this year. Caraway and Illinois Teachers Federation representative Lana Turley attended that interview and both claimed that Wolf told them Halwachs did not deny making the statement.

Brian Flynn, who was hired as the school district’s attorney Monday night, said Wednesday that he instructed the board members not to comment because it was a “personnel issue.”

The pictures that accompanied the story did have photographs of black children who attended High Mount School. Derek Holtmann, the photographer who took the photos, said Venorsky accompanied him and reporter Lexi Cortes, but no one gave them instructions regarding who was to be photographed for the story.

“There has been no explanation or excuse given to the union or Ms. Hicks for this statement. In fact, the superintendent has admitted to the statement,” Caraway said.

Results of the school board’s investigation into the racial discrimination were complicated because Halwachs is the non-discrimination coordinator for the district. Wilkerson, the principal, is the complaint manager.

Wolf was named to head the investigation that continued through the summer. The results were expected to be released during a school board meeting on Monday night, but the issue was not on the agenda.

“When this issue is resolved, there won’t be anything to talk about,” Halwachs told the BND.

Caraway said Tuesday that he intends to file a complaint with the Illinois Board of Education, alleging disparate Title 1 funding and other allegations of racial inequality at the school.

“We believe that this is systemic racism from the top down at this district,” Caraway said.

“My record in public education for that past 28 years speaks for itself,” Halwachs said.

A year to the day of Hick’s death, the BND posted a story about Hicks, who created a store to donate clothes to kids in crisis. The store, in Fairview Heights, is named for Hicks’ grandaughter, Anaya, who died from a heart condition when she was 6.

Hicks also started the High Mount Bully Blocker program to prevent school bullying.

Results of the racial discrimination investigation are expected to be released on Monday night at a special school board meeting.

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