Video of a prominent Proviso Township High School District 209 school board member apparently raising her middle finger at another board member while the latter was recording the exchange on her phone has prompted a wave of outrage and concern among community members.
The gesture has also been met with a petition calling for the board member’s name to be removed from the Proviso East football stadium and for D209 Supt. James Henderson to resign amid tense negotiations with the Proviso Teachers Union. Community members say the behavior is indicative of the board’s and administration’s general contempt for dissenting students, parents and teachers.
The video clip, which was recorded by D209 school board member Claudia Medina, shows Theresa Kelly, the longest-serving school board member in the district’s history, seemingly giving Medina the middle finger before applying lipstick. Kelly denies doing so.
The exchange happened during the public comment portion of a tense Feb. 15 school board meeting, which was dominated by concerns about stalled teacher contract negotiations and a pending strike that was due to take place on Feb. 18.
The union eventually postponed the scheduled strike after receiving an updated contract offer from the district that includes slightly higher salary increases, among other changes. Negotiations are currently ongoing, with the next bargaining session is scheduled to take place on Feb. 23.
Carissa Gillespie, a Proviso West teacher who sits on the PTU’s executive leadership and negotiating team, was speaking when the exchange between Kelly and Medina happened. The short video segment has been circulating widely on various social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
When contacted Feb. 19, Kelly denied giving Medina the middle finger and said she has since gotten death threats.
“I simply looked up and realized that I was being recorded by her while I had my lipstick out to apply, not realizing that it would be used in a negative manner,” Kelly said in a statement.
“There was no malice, middle finger or insult,” she said. “To be honest, people were saying I shot her a ‘bird,’ but I didn’t even realize what a ‘bird’ was. I noticed I was being recorded by a fellow board member, looked at the camera and said, ‘God’s got me,’ not realizing that pointing my lipstick up would be viewed negatively.”
Kelly said she’s received “several death threats” since the video emerged, but said that she hasn’t reported them yet. When asked to verify the threats, she provided screenshots that show an unidentified commenter’s response underneath the video clip: “Imma stick her watch.”
Medina confirmed that she took the video clip and said that she started recording, because Kelly and D209 school board President Rodney Alexander were being rude while teachers, students and parents were speaking. She said she shared the video clip with some parents, which is how it started to circulate on the internet.
“Rodney and Theresa were being incredibly disrespectful,” Medina said. “They were laughing and being highly disrespectful, so I flipped my camera over and she flipped me the bird.”
Medina said she regularly takes video footage during public comments in order to hear what’s being said and to verify the accuracy of what took place. She said her intent going into the meeting was not to record Kelly. Medina said that this wasn’t the first time that Kelly has given her the middle finger or used insulting language, adding that Kelly regularly engages in “inappropriate communication, including inappropriate hand gestures at board meetings.”
Medina has not been without controversy herself, with five board members voting to replace her as board vice president in 2020 for allegedly sharing sensitive information and executive session conversations with local media, among other claims.
Amanda Grant, a member of the D209 school board and the board secretary who is responsible for facilitating public comments, said she didn’t see Kelly give the middle finger, but “the laughing, the joking [by her board colleagues] is constant and often distracting.
“I’ve got my timer and I do my best to listen,” she said. “It is extremely embarrassing to have this kind of behavior when we have students and teachers and parents and community members who [are speaking]. This is their time to talk about what’s going on. If we’re not listening to students and teachers who are in classrooms every day, who are we listening to?”
Alexander, who was sitting to Kelly’s right and can be seen in the video laughing as she gestures toward Medina, said that he had not seen the video and did not see the longtime school board member raise her middle finger. He said the criticism of his and Kelly’s behavior is unfair and unwarranted, and should instead be directed toward Medina.
“I can’t laugh?” he said. “They don’t know what I’m laughing about. They don’t know what I’m doing on my phone. I can be looking up research, looking up stuff that’s on the agenda. That’s board work. I’m not sitting up there videotaping though. Is it a board member’s job to videotape other board members? We know what she’s doing is out of line.”
The board president said at one moment, he was looking at a photo of his son taking the last shot of his freshman year at Proviso West High School.
“I’m a parent, too,” Alexander said. “I would have loved to have been at his game. That’s what I saw and that’s why I was laughing. If you have to find a reason why I was laughing, that’s why I was laughing. You can put it in there, ‘Board member Alexander’s son made the last shot of the last game of his freshman year and he couldn’t be there, so his wife sent him the picture.’”
Many community members, including teachers, students and parents, have criticized what they believe is the disrespectful behavior of some board members and administrators during meetings.
Some people castigated board members during public comments, with some parents and community members voicing their frustration directly to the school board and administration. As Kelly gestures toward Medina, Gillespie can be heard interjecting, “I’m speaking!”
“Look at me, get off your phones,” Rose O’Campo, a D209 parent who lives in Maywood, told board members during her public comments. “How can you guys be so comfortable [while] all these things are happening?”
In a statement announcing that they had postponed the strike that was scheduled for Feb. 18, the Proviso Teachers Union addressed the board’s behavior at the Feb. 15 meeting.
“For months they have ignored parent and teacher concerns, but they went too far on Tuesday night at the board meeting by blatantly disrespecting our students who spoke out in support of their teachers,” the petition reads. “One board member even made an obscene gesture to a teacher. In order to move forward, we demand an end to the contempt being shown to our students, parents, and educators.”
Over the weekend, two change.org petitions were created anonymously, one of which called for the district to change the name of the Proviso East football stadium that was named after Kelly last year.
“As most have seen in recent videos, Theresa Kelly doesn’t have the proper etiquette to be a board member and she hasn’t shown interest in any of the pleas or complaints the students, parents, and staff have made,” the petition summary explains. “As such we should remove her name from the stadium at East and change it to the name of a great alumni of the school, Fred Hampton.”
The petition had garnered 26 signatures by Feb. 19. Another change.org petition calls for D209 Supt. James Henderson to resign. That petition had garnered 664 signatures by Feb. 19.
“We’re not going to name a stadium after Fred Hampton,” Alexander said, before defending Kelly, who has served on the board for 22 years. “We respect him, but Fred Hampton did what he did for the majority of Blacks. Nothing specific for Proviso East. He’s not Theresa Kelly. We’ve named a study hall after Hampton, but he’s not Theresa Kelly. She lived here, she went to school here and served here.”