Recent criminal investigations reveal ways teachers can’t punish kids. What can they do?

SIUE police chief discusses investigation into head start teachers

The SIUE police chief discusses the investigation into to teachers at the university's head start program in East St. Louis who are allegedly made children stand naked in a closet as a punishment.
Up Next
The SIUE police chief discusses the investigation into to teachers at the university's head start program in East St. Louis who are allegedly made children stand naked in a closet as a punishment.

Preschool teachers accused of making children stand naked in a closet in a Head Start classroom in East St. Louis and of throwing a child against a cabinet in St. Louis County have raised the question of how far educators can go in disciplining their young students.

Most recently, workers at the East St. Louis Head Start program, which is administered by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, face felony charges. They are accused of ordering children to take off their clothes and stand in an open closet for misbehavior like talking or not listening.

The charge against teacher Mary Agbehia, 27, and teachers’ aide Shavonda Willis, 41, is unlawful restraint. They also face aggravated battery charges for alleged physical contact with the children, including taking one boy’s shirt off for him.

Police believe that discipline had been happening in East St. Louis since February, which is also when surveillance video showing a 3-year-old girl being thrown across a classroom in St. Louis County went viral.

As a result, Wilma Brown, 27, was fired from her job at Brighter Day Care and Preschool in Missouri and charged with child abuse. Agbehia and Willis have been on paid administrative leave since March 14, when police began their investigation because a boy in the class had told his mom about the alleged discipline.

Those recent criminal investigations and resulting charges illustrate some of the ways teachers aren’t allowed to discipline students: causing pain, fear or humiliation. What can they do?

How teachers should respond to a child’s misbehavior

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services states in its licensing standards for childcare centers that workers have to teach children how to behave when they are 4 years old or younger.

The Head Start program where Agbehia and Willis worked is run by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which rents the space for the program at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis.

SIUE provided its policy for Head Start teachers to the Belleville News-Democrat. It states that when children misbehave, the educators should ask them to stop but also explain why.

The college says its preschool teachers are responsible for making sure children understand the rules and consequences. And the rules have to be reasonable — sitting quietly, for example, isn’t natural for children, because they are curious, active and learn by talking, according to the policy.

When children don’t listen to directions, teachers’ other option is redirection, which is guiding them away from bad behavior before it gets out of control.

SIUE’s policy suggests giving children the option of a different activity, like playing when they aren’t listening to a book the teacher is reading. Lynnie Bailey, the director of SIUE’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs, said the educators there want children to develop attention spans for kindergarten, so they would encourage, but not force, them to listen to the book.

She said the policy is full of suggested approaches like that rather than one directive for misbehavior because each child is different.

“Everybody has an off-day, even when you’re 4 years old,” Bailey said. “... Our job is to interpret what that behavior means.”

Bailey also worked in a preschool classroom for 18 years.

She said teachers might ask parents what works for them at home when the child misbehaves, so they could use that technique at the preschool, too.

Teachers are allowed to remove a child who continues to misbehave from the group until the educator can calm the child down, according to the policy. DCFS states in its guidelines that the removal shouldn’t go on for more than five minutes for a 5-year-old or four minutes for a 4-year-old.

Bailey said that might include a time-out in the classroom, which is framed as either time for the child to think alone or to talk to the teacher.

“This can be a lot of stimulation for a child,” Bailey said of the first-time classroom experience. “They might just need some one-on-one or some alone time within the classroom.”

In extreme cases, teachers can physically restrain a child, but only if they have specific training on how to do it safely and only in situations when that child or others could be harmed or injured if the child wasn’t restrained. Schools are required to document it each time they use physical restraints, including the length of time the student was restrained and the staff involved, according to state law.

Head Start teachers’ records were ‘crystal clear’

SIUE Human Resources Director Bob Thumith said this week that Agbehia and Willis had both been through “extensive” training on dealing with children, along with the rest of the Head Start workers. Bailey said they learn strategies to stop “challenging behavior” before it starts.

“The base of everything is to create the environment that supports children’s learning and ensures that they feel as if they belong and that they are loved and feel safe there,” she said of the preventative approach.

There had been nothing in Agbehia’s or Willis’ background check before they were hired to suggest that they would be accused of forcing children to undress and stand in the closet for five to 10 minutes, Thumith said. He called their records “crystal clear.”

“I can’t explain it,” Thumith said. “We’ve done everything in our control in terms of training... Codes of conduct, codes of ethics, handbooks always prescribe behavior which is prohibited by Head Start regulations and even common sense.”

SIUE Police Chief Kevin Schmoll described the discipline that Agbehia and Willis are alleged to have used as “totally inappropriate,” and “where they got that from, we don’t know,” he said.

After their felony charges were filed Wednesday, Agbehia and Willis surrendered to law enforcement and were released from custody when they each posted their $5,000 bond, according to St. Clair County Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Allen.

Thumith said officials hadn’t made a final decision about their employment as of Wednesday.

Timothy Staples, the interim director of the SIUE East St. Louis Center, said that in the midst of the investigation, the staff were reminded that they are required to report cases of suspected child abuse and neglect to DCFS.

Head Start programs like the one Agbehia and Willis worked for receive funding from the federal government and are offered to families that otherwise couldn’t afford to enroll their children in preschool to get them ready for kindergarten.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat

The metro-east is home for investigative reporter Lexi Cortes. She was raised in Granite City, went to school in Edwardsville and now lives in Collinsville. Lexi has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat since 2014, winning multiple state awards for her investigative and community service reporting.
Support my work with a digital subscription