All they say they wanted was someone at the school to say they were sorry — and mean it. But after having gone a year without what they believed to be an sincere apology, they filed a lawsuit.
“This is not right to call children and students names when (they have) trusted you in class. You’re supposed to be someone they look up to,” said Theophilus Afogho, the father of one of two mixed-race students who say a teacher at Joseph Arthur Middle School referred to them as “slaves” during a Jan. 18, 2017 student council meeting.
At the student council meeting, the Afoghos allege former literature teacher and student council adviser Andrea Heuring referred to the their daughter, a seventh-grader at the time, and an eighth-grade boy who is also of mixed-race ethnicity as “Slave No. 1” and “Slave No. 4” in front of other students and another teacher.
“To use the word ‘slave’ is demeaning,” Theophilus Afogho, who is black, said in a recent interview with the BND. “That should never be a word you freely use.”
In addition to the “slave” comments, the Afoghos also allege Heuring forced their daughter “to perform personal tasks for her.”
“She was made to do things that was not really related to academics and stuff. So why are you using your student to do your errands, like to go grab you ice from the lunch room, go grab your coat?” Theophilus Afogho said
Following the student council meeting, Theophilus Afogho and his wife, Stephanie, who is white, said they made repeated attempts to reach out to the school administration to garner the apology they felt their daughter and her peer deserved.
“We started where you are supposed to start and worked our way up, and to me, it was getting so brushed under the table,” Stephanie Afogho said. “I mean, nothing was being done about it.”
Theophilus Afogho said his family was just looking for a little understanding.
“We just wanted a simple apology, a simple admission of guilt,” he said.
But instead, he said they were initially met with denials.
“You don’t have to lie — lies upon lies, upon lies, upon lies about, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it.’ There were people … who heard you say it,” he said.
‘Just voicing what hurt her’
The student council meeting was the original episode in a series of alleged events that ultimately spawned a 67-page federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Southern Illinois on Jan. 16. The suit alleges 19 separate incidents of what plaintiffs say were “unlawful racial discrimination and retaliation” by O’Fallon Central School District 104 teachers and school board.
“What transpired afterward was just uncalled for,” Theophilus Afogho said.
In addition to the school district, the suit names Heuring, School Board President Sarah Svoboda, former mathematics teacher Emily Weber, and current JAMS physical education teacher and district athletic director Derek Morgan, all of whom are white, 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.
In the lawsuit, the Afoghos claim their daughter was singled out for persecution by Heuring and Weber after what allegedly happened at the student council meeting became a public issue.
“She was just voicing what hurt her, and for a 12-year-old to go through that is — it’s even hard for an adult to go through that,” Theophilus Afogho said.
The girl began missing several days of school due to “severe emotional distress” and her grades suffered, her father said.
“When all this was transpiring something had happened, something had gone wrong, she became withdrawn,” he said.
In addition to the Afoghos, other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Todd Porter Sr., Marcus Gregory and Christopher Boykin.
The Porters are the parents of the student allegedly referred to as “Slave No. 4” at the student council. Todd Porter, who is black, was also a basketball coach at the school at the time. His wife, Krista Porter, who is white, worked in the cafeteria at JAMS.
In the suit, the Porters allege the district retaliated against them professionally after they too spoke out about what allegedly happened at the student council meeting. Todd Porter was not hired 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, the suit says. Krista Porter was demoted from her job as cashier in the cafeteria at JAMS and transferred to Central Elementary, where she was reassigned as a dish washer, a lesser position, as retaliation, according to the suit.
The Porters were not available for further comment.
The lawsuit further alleges Boykin and Gregory, who served as assistant coaches on Todd Porter’s basketball team, were also not hired back as coaches as retaliation.
“I think that was the toughest thing was they took something away from me that I enjoyed doing,” said Gregory, who also recently sat down for an interview with the BND.
Boykin was not available for comment.
The suit also claims that, after the student council meeting in question, African-American and mixed-race students began to find their names placed on an “F List,” not allowing them to participate on the basketball team.
“Throughout the season, particularly after coach Porter became the head coach, it seemed that list just continually grew with students,” Gregory said. “And it was frequent with having certain students on that list — the starters of the basketball team. And that went pretty much for the whole season.”
Seeking a ‘culture change’
Neither Heuring nor Weber work for the district any longer. Svoboda is still president of the school board. Morgan is still the district’s athletic director and a JAMS P.E. teacher.
At a special board meeting last February, a month after the aforementioned student council meeting, it was Svoboda who read an apology from the district.
“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,” the prepared statement said.
But Gregory said the words rang hollow.
“There was a formal apology read in one of the board meetings, but to me, very insincere,” Gregory said. “Just kind of a: ‘Sorry this happened — move on — type of a deal. Get over it.’ Which is kind of typical, unfortunately.”
Gregory said he’s part of the suit because he wants to see a “culture change” in the district when it comes to issues of race.
“Ultimately, we just want it to stop — that it changes, that it doesn’t happen to another kid,” Gregory said.
Mark S. Schuver of the law firm Mathis, Marifian and Richter LTD, which is representing plaintiffs in the suit, told the BND previously: “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,”
“Kids should be allowed to go to school and love school — to have fun in school and learn and not worry about, ‘What’s this teacher going to do today?’ or ‘How are they going to treat me today because of what happened?’” Theophilus Afogho said.
Stephanie Afogho said that her daughter, who still attends JAMS, is “managing.”
“She’s trying to get through this year, and we’re just doing the best that we can one day at a time. And that’s all you can do at this point,” she said.
Theophilus Afogho said that speaking out has caused some backlash toward his family. However, staying silent, he said, would have been even worse.
“What if we had kept quiet? What about all of the kids who might have gone through this?” he said.