A heated interaction between the District 209 superintendent and a school board member during a school board meeting held March 15 at Proviso West High School in Hillside has exacerbated tensions between the Proviso Teachers Union and the district amid a historic work stoppage that’s entering its third week.
The moment happened after the school board meeting ended, when board member Claudia Medina, a vocal critic of the D209 administration, approached D209 Supt. James Henderson.
Cell phone video taken during the exchange shows Henderson apparently raising the back of his hand toward Medina before multiple security guards intervene and carry him away from the school board member.
Medina told Fox 32 Chicago that she had approached Henderson, “asking for accountability,” adding that she wanted to “know what the superintendent was doing and why the negotiations were not his top priority. So I asked for a copy of his calendar.
“At that moment, he put his hand up and then he went to jab me with his elbow in my face, and said words that are explicit, which I would not like to repeat. They were intimidating and he gave me a very violent face as well.”
Medina told NBC 5 Chicago that the superintendent told her to “get the [expletive] out of my face [expletive], and then he first went like this, and then he went to elbow me in the face then they took him away.”
According to NBC 5 Chicago, the video was taken by a District 209 student.
“I was shocked,” senior Jose Carbajal told the media outlet. “The crowd around me was shocked.”
Two days later, on Thursday, the school district released aerial surveillance footage of the incident from two separate angles.
The roughly three-minute video, which doesn’t have sound, shows Henderson walking towards a district employee, who hands him some documents. While he’s approaching the woman to receive the documents, Medina walks up to Henderson and says something.
As the superintendent is walking in the opposite direction back to where he sits during meetings, he and Medina bump each other and their faces are inches apart.
Seconds later, Henderson makes a hand gesture toward Medina before walking away. He then turns halfway around and makes a gesture toward her direction, as if motioning to elbow her, before three security guards position themselves between him and Medina.
In a letter addressed to community members that the district released on March 17, Henderson said that Medina “aggressively came towards me and violated my personal space while shoving me with her body and screaming demands. She was so close that I felt her spittle on my face.
“What you saw was a human reaction to someone who has, for the last year and a half, purposely distracted and hindered me from doing the work that I was hired to do — educate our scholars,” he added.
The superintendent also claimed that, since his employment, he’s had “to endure Ms. Medina’s constant beratement, her lies and uncooperative behavior. I have even had to deal with her frequent reminders that she’s my boss and I must obey her, as she disrespectfully shakes her finger in my face in anger.”
On March 16, the Proviso Teachers Union (PTU) issued a statement calling for an investigation into the incident and for the district to release videos of the exchange.
“We know videos showing Dr. Henderson advancing aggressively towards a board member are all over social media, and community members are outraged and calling for his resignation,” said PTU President Maggie Riley.
“If Dr. Henderson does not concede to that call, we demand the district release any video footage of the incident and conduct an investigation during which time Dr. Henderson would be put on leave,” she added. “Just as any educator should be treated, this is in accordance with due process, which the union holds as a required element of any disciplinary investigation.”
In response to the union’s demand, District 209 school board President Rodney Alexander released a statement affirming the school board’s support for the superintendent.
“Today’s media comments from a Board member attacking and calling for the resignation of Superintendent Dr. James Henderson are an unnecessary and inappropriate distraction from that important mission,” Alexander stated in a letter that is “attributable to” Alexander, along with board members Theresa Kelly, Della Patterson, Sam Valtierrez and Ned Wagner.
“Our Board majority denounces these divisive and disparaging comments. We remain committed to putting our students first and remain focused on tomorrow’s negotiations,” Alexander added.
“We stand united behind Dr. Henderson and his ongoing efforts to reach a contract agreement that advances the best interests of all District 209 stakeholders— teachers, parents, community taxpayers, and, most importantly, our students.”
The PTU and Henderson, who is leading the district’s negotiating team, have been in tense contract negotiations for roughly a year over salary increases, class sizes and working conditions. The teachers have been on strike since March 4.
A federal mediation session held Thursday did not result in a contract agreement, so classes will be closed for the 11th school day on Friday. District 209’s Spring Break is next week, from March 21 through March 25.