O'Fallon Progress

7 sue O’Fallon district for retaliation after teacher’s alleged ‘slaves’ remark publicized

The parents of two mixed-race students who say a teacher at Joseph Arthur Middle School referred to their children as “slaves” during a student council meeting last year are now suing Central School District 104 in O’Fallon, claiming retaliation by the school for making the alleged incident public.

“The primary objective with this case is to put an end to the racial discrimination at the school, and thereby district, and to shed light on what’s been going on there,” said Mark S. Schuver of the law firm Mathis, Marifian and Richter LTD, which is representing the seven named plaintiffs in the suit.

The suit names the school district, School Board President Sarah Svoboda, former literature teacher and student council adviser Andrea Heuring, former mathematics teacher Emily Weber, and current physical education teacher and athletic director Derek Morgan as defendants. Requests for comments from all the individuals named in the suit were not returned.

Central 104 Superintendent Dawn Elser said the district was aware of suit but had no comment on its merits.

“Central School District 104 received a copy of the lawsuit that was filed. We value the rights of all our students, faculty and staff. We cannot comment on pending litigation,” Esler said.

A call seeking comment from the law firm that normally represents the district was also not returned.

Esler said she is waiting to hear if the district will be represented by its normal counsel or one appointed by the district’s insurance carrier.

The 67-page suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for Southern Illinois on Jan. 16, alleges 19 separate incidents of what plaintiffs say were “unlawful racial discrimination and retaliation” by teachers and the school board.

The first such incident, according to the suit, was during the aforementioned student council meeting, which occurred on Jan. 18, 2017. At the meeting, the suit alleges, Heuring referred to the two mixed-race students as “Slave No. 1” and “Slave No. 4” in front of other students and another teacher. The suit also stated Heuring forced the two students “to perform personal tasks for her.”

The lawsuit states the students reported the incident to their respective mothers the same day and both mothers contacted the then district superintendent, John Bute, the day after that.

The suit alleges the parents “repeatedly reported and complained” to the school board, but the only actions that were taken were to “intimidate and retaliate against (the students), their parents, as well as others associated with them.”

The district let Heuring go in April of last year for unknown reasons. However, the suit alleges she and Weber, with whom Heuring was friends, had already started to take retaliatory actions against the students by then, and thereafter, the parents were also made to suffer by the district professionally.

Job discrimination allegations

The parents of the student allegedly referred to as “Slave No. 4” at the student council meeting are Todd Porter Sr. and Krista Porter. Their son was an eighth-grader at the time of the alleged incident last year.

Todd Porter, who is black, served as the head boys basketball coach at Joseph Arthur Middle School from 2014-2017.

Krista Porter is an Aramark school cafeteria worker in the district.

In the suit, the Porters allege the district retaliated against them by not hiring Todd Porter back as boys basketball coach, despite his team having just finished fourth at the state tournament and Porter being selected as co-coach of the year by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.

Two of Todd Porter’s assistant coaches, Marcus Gregory and Christopher Boykin, both of whom are black, were also not hired back. Gregory and Boykin are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The suit further alleges Krista Porter was demoted from her position as a cashier in the cafeteria at Joseph Arthur Middle School and transferred to the other school in the district, Central Elementary, where she was reassigned a dish washer, a lesser position, as retaliation.

The suit alleges that Morgan, the P.E. teacher, sent Krista Porter’s supervisor a note suggesting that Porter “did not get along with JAMS teachers and/or staff.”

On May 12, 2017, Svoboda, the school board president, signed a letter to Aramark stating the school board was requesting Porter “be moved and transferred out of JAMS … as soon as possible,” according to the suit.

The suit states that the board never met with Krista Porter, nor was she given any advance notice or warning about her potential transfer.

Four days after Svoboda allegedly sent the note to Aramark, Krista Porter was forcibly removed and escorted from Joseph Arthur Middle School and reassigned to Central Elementary, the suit says.

Allegations of discrimination against kids

After the student council meeting in question, multiple African-American and mixed-race students at the middle school began to find their names placed on an “F List,” not allowing them to participate on the basketball team that Todd Porter coached, the suit alleges.

Weber and Heuring refused to enter these students’ grades into the school’s grading system prior to the games, despite the fact that they had graded the relevant assignments, quizzes and tests before the games were played, the complaint states.

The parents of the seventh-grade girl allegedly referred to as “Slave No. 1” at the student council meeting are also suing the district, claiming their daughter was singled out for persecution afterward. The girl is also mixed race. Her father, Theophilus Afogho, is black, and her mother, Stephanie Afogho, is white.

The Afoghos allege their daughter was denied equal access to educational services by Heuring and Weber.

The girl began missing several days of school due to “severe emotional distress” suffered when being required to sit in the teacher’s class who had made the comment, according to the complaint.

When their daughter’s grades began to fall, the Afoghos say they requested she be transferred to different instructors.

After multiple complaints to Bute, the former superintendent, and others, the girl was eventually allowed to study in the library during her usual literature class period with Heuring, under the supervision of another teacher, the suit says, and her grades improved for that class.

However, she was not allowed out of Weber’s class, the suit says, despite further complaints made to school officials. Weber also refused to enter the girls scores into the grading system for makeup work for her excused absences, the suit alleges.

February 2017 school board meetings

On Feb. 8, 2017, the school board called an emergency meeting, following complaints from the plaintiffs who eventually filed the lawsuit, as well as other parents of African-American and mixed-race students. During the meeting, parents complained about the alleged discrimination and the efforts to prevent them from playing on the basketball team coached by Todd Porter. Several individuals also made public comments relating to the grading system at Joseph Arthur Middle School.

On Feb. 13, 2017, the board had its regular monthly board meeting, where the Porters, Afoghos, Gregory and others addressed the board about the alleged student council incident and asked why no action had been taken. According to the complaint, Gregory told the board “under no circumstances should a student be addressed as a slave, and indicating that the school needed to ‘get serious’ about addressing its culture.”

The board had another special meeting on Feb. 16, 2017, at which time the district issued a “notice of remedy” to Heuring. It’s not known what the discipline entailed, but Heuring was dismissed by the district two months later.

Svoboda, the board president, also issued an apology from the district at the same meeting.

“To the families, and particularly the children, we wish to extend sincere apologies. In no way do these remarks reflect the beliefs of this district,” Svoboda said, reading a prepared statement.

Pizza Party

The lawsuit also alleges Heuring used Facebook to reach out to O’Fallon Township High School students to come to her support during the Feb. 16 meeting.

The suit claims Heuring told the high school students that a group of parents “have been causing problems all year” and “are now coming after me” because of what allegedly was said at the student council meeting and the “basketball issue.” The complaint states Heuring offered the OTHS students a pizza party if they went to bat for her.

According to the Feb. 16 meeting minutes, at least four OTHS students spoke on behalf of the three teachers who are now named in the lawsuit.

The suit claims the group then met in a nearby classroom for pizza.

Robyn L. Kirsch: 618-239-2690, @BND_RobynKirsch