Teachers at East St. Louis preschool charged after allegedly making kids stand naked

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.
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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.

Two East St. Louis preschool workers accused of making children stand naked in a closet as punishment now face criminal charges.

Teacher Mary Agbehia, of Edwardsville, and teachers’ aide Shavonda Willis, of Fairview Heights, were each charged with felony aggravated battery for alleged physical contact with the children and unlawful restraint for allegedly ordering children to stand in the closet, according to a news release from the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office.

Agbehia, 27, faces the battery charge for allegedly taking one boy’s shirt off for him. The battery charge for Willis, 41, is for allegedly touching a girl with an object she used to pretend she was giving the child an injection.

The investigation and resulting charges were discussed Wednesday during a press conference at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which runs the Head Start program where the women worked at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis.

Police believe four or five children in the class had been told to stand naked in the closet since early February, according to SIUE Police Chief Kevin Schmoll. He said the children are all 4 and 5 years old.

The teacher and classroom aide have been on paid administrative leave since a supervisor called the SIUE Police Department on March 14. Schmoll said a boy in the class told his mother “what was going on,” and she told the school.

Police were told kids had been forced to take off their clothes and stand inside a closet for five to 10 minutes with the door open before they could get dressed and come back to the class. That punishment was for misbehavior like talking or not listening, Schmoll said.

SIUE Human Resources Director Bob Thumith said Wednesday that the university hadn’t made a decision about Agbehia’s and Willis’ employment. They will remain on administrative leave until SIUE officials can look at the results of the investigations conducted by police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, according to Thumith.

In light of the allegations against the women, Thumith said he reviewed the university’s screening and hiring processes for each of them for anything that could be changed in the future. The processes included background checks and criminal records checks that Thumith said were “crystal clear.”

“Let me put it to you this way, if they were to apply today, they would be attractive candidates absent the current situation,” he said.

Agbehia was hired in 2016, and Willis was hired in 2013, according to Thumith.

He said they went through “extensive” training on dealing with children along with the rest of the staff.

“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.”

Timothy Staples, the interim director of the SIUE East St. Louis Center, said officials have since reminded the staff that they are required to report suspected abuse or neglect.

Bond for each of the women was set at $5,000.

Heart Start programs like the one where the women worked are federally funded and offered to families that otherwise couldn’t afford preschool to get their children ready for kindergarten.

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.
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