Metro-East News

Board acknowledges superintendent’s racial comment, sends staff to diversity training

In an almost five-hour special meeting Monday night, the High Mount School District’s Board of Education unanimously decided that Superintendent Mark Halwachs made racially discriminatory comments and that he has to go undergo diversity training with the rest of the school district staff.

However, the board acknowledged that while Halwachs did not specifically state anything about not wanting black kids in photos, he did “make comments to the effect.” Halwachs denied to a BND reporter that he made on the comment on Aug. 22 but two people say he did not deny it during a second interview with school board President Debra Wolf on Aug. 7.

Attorney Jason 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.

The special meeting was held after Belleville News-Democrat reporters investigated a complaint made to the school board by High Mount School social worker Yvette Hicks in May.

Mark Halwachs.jpg
Mark Halwachs, High Mount School District 116 Superintendent Submitted

In the complaint, Hicks said Halwachs made remarks in front of her and other staff members on May 1 that he didn’t want photos of “black kids” taken for a BND story about school resource officers. Hicks, a black woman, was the only minority in the room.

After she filed the complaint, Hicks told a friend that she felt ostracized and stressed. During that Aug. 17 phone conversation, Hicks suffered a stroke that put her in the hospital until she died there on Aug. 21.

Family and friends of Hicks were present at the meeting and stayed to hear the school board’s decision. After the school board’s statement regarding Halwachs was read, cries of “no justice” and “this is unfair” were heard.

Patricia Lewis was in attendance at the meeting. She has several grandchildren who attend the school.

“I’m really upset,” Lewis said. “He shouldn’t be here if he said those things.”

High Mount School social worker Yvette Hicks is pictured in this August 2017 BND file photo. Hicks died Aug. 21, 2018 after suffering a stroke. Zia Nizami BND

The school board mentioned that its staff had never gone through any sort of diversity training and that they hoped to implement a program no later than September. Once he goes through the training, Halwachs has 30 days to compile a report with quantifiable results of the training. If the report is not submitted within that time frame, the school board will immediately suspend Halwachs.

The school board issued a statement that also said that it acknowledged Hicks was visibly upset at the comments. With Hicks’ death, High Mount School is left with no minority teachers. The statement said Hicks was a vocal advocate for recruiting more minority teachers, something the school board says it will now actively do.

Halwachs is also the nondiscrimination coordinator for the district, which is composed of 35 percent minority students.

Hana Muslic: 618-239-2626, @h_muslic