Cesar Rodriguez, the communication director for the District 209 Proviso Township High Schools, has hired attorney Julie Herrera to represent him after he was fired from the district, calling the decision an act of discrimination on the part of recently installed Superintendent James Henderson.

Rodriguez was hired as D209’s director of communications and community outreach on May 14 after Cynthia Moreno left the position. He hasn’t been in the building since Sept. 2. He was first put on paid, and then unpaid, leave.

On Oct. 13, his contract was terminated by board vote, with board member Claudia Medina voting no and the rest of the board in favor of the firing.

Nicole Wilson, Rodriguez’s successor as communication director, said the district would have no comment since it “cannot discuss personnel issues.”

Rodriguez says there were no incidents or warnings before he was terminated.

Not long after Henderson started, Rodriguez became ill with COVID-like symptoms. He stayed home for two weeks. On his first day back at work, Henderson came into his office and told him he was being demoted and his salary was being reduced, according to Rodriguez.

When he asked Henderson why, the superintendent allegedly said, “I’m going in a different direction.”

Rodriguez had a contract, however, and later in the day Henderson reportedly returned to say Rodriguez wasn’t being demoted after all and his salary would not be reduced.

Next, said Rodriguez, came a series of assignments he believes were given purposely to make his job more difficult than it had to be. He alleges that Henderson would regularly call him at 5 p.m., when he was getting ready to go home to his family, to give him an assignment that needed to be done right away or texting after hours, saying he wanted a flyer prepared for the next day.

Rodriguez sees it as “clear retaliation” against him. Though the reasons behind it weren’t so obvious, he said it was a change from the way the two had worked earlier, prior to taking time off for his illness. According to Rodriguez, Henderson seemed “flustered and upset” that he hadn’t been able to remove him.

Things came to a head on Sept. 2 when Henderson held a Microsoft Teams meeting with Proviso East students. About 90 kids participated, said Rodriguez.

“From the beginning, something was wrong,” Rodriguez said.

Some of the students had apparently hacked into the system, repeatedly muting the superintendent when he was speaking.

“They were giggling and heckling him,” Rodriguez said.

Henderson told them to stop, according to Rodriguez, telling the students if he found out who was responsible, they’d be in trouble. But the kids kept laughing.

Rodriguez said Henderson canceled the meeting, then found Rodriguez and walked him into Henderson’s assistant’s office. Henderson allegedly said he wanted his assistant to write down what he was about to say, which was that Rodriguez was responsible for the meeting that had just occurred.

When Rodriguez asked Henderson why he was being blamed, a verbal interaction occurred in which, according to Rodriguez, Henderson demanded that he remove his facemask.

Rodriguez said he refused, since they were in an enclosed office.

According to Rodriguez, Henderson made the demand again.

When he refused, Henderson reportedly “got really mad,” making fists with his hands, and ordering him to leave.

According to Rodriguez, Henderson pointed his finger in Rodriguez’s face and said, “We’re going to talk in 30 minutes.”

Later that day, Rodriguez said, Henderson brought him a letter, stating that he was being suspended for two weeks without pay. When Rodriguez asked for an explanation, Henderson simply told him it was time for him to leave.

During his suspension, he said, he received a second letter, this one stating his pay was being terminated and the recommendation was going before the board to fire him.

Rodriguez said Henderson claimed he was “insubordinate” and referenced a personal email Rodriguez had sent to a colleague explaining that he couldn’t help with something because he was on leave since “James” had suspended him.

Henderson allegedly accessed that email and was angry about being referred to as “James” instead of “Dr. Henderson,” according to Rodriguez, who said he never referred to Henderson in person that way.

“My parents are Mexican immigrants, and they taught me respect for elders,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “Referring to him as ‘James’ wasn’t to disrespect him, and it was done in a private email.”

To this day, Rodriguez says it’s a mystery to him why Henderson demanded he remove his mask, since they were in a small area and he wears his mask all the time when in the district buildings.

“Why would you demand something like that?” Rodriguez asked.

He said he’s sad and confused about what happened.

“I really feel I was vested in the schools and in the message we were trying to send out: One Proviso,” said Rodriguez. “I took the job because I thought I could make a difference.” He grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago and attended high school in an impoverished district.

“The job wasn’t about the money,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to make a difference, and I thought it was a perfect fit for me.”

When brought up for a vote at the Oct. 13 school board meeting, President Rodney Alexander said the board was voting on the “termination of Cesar Rodriguez for reasons discussed in closed session.”

During public discussion, Medina claimed that an opening for Rodriguez’s position was posted prior to the events leading to his firing. She objected to a reason for his firing being that he had referred to someone by their first name.

“It should not be used as a reason to fire someone,” Medina said, especially when the communication in which it happened wasn’t even addressed to Henderson.

“This is a very, very frivolous and ridiculous action item,” Medina said. “Rodriguez communicated profusely throughout the district in Spanish and in English,” an important consideration since D209 has a high percentage of Spanish-speaking families. “There are a lot of people in the Latin community who are not receiving communications now. … This, I believe, is discriminatory and should not have ever happened.”