Teachers, students and some board members are accusing Proviso Township District 209 Supt. James Henderson and his administration of intimidation after a student and teacher critical of Henderson were suspended and terminated, respectively. 

District 209 Supt. James Henderson

The disciplinary actions happened a month after the teacher and student delivered scathing public comments critical of the district administration at a board meeting in November that prompted allegations of racism from some board members.

Ashley Stohl, a student at Proviso West High School in Hillside, was suspended for five days for scribbling with an expo marker on the photos of D209 board members hanging in a school hallway, a charge that Stohl admitted to.

In an interview earlier this month, Stohl said she took the action out of frustration with some board members and their actions in the face of accumulating complaints from students and teachers about learning conditions in the school.

Paul Goyette/Photographer Members of Students for a Better Proviso hold signs critical of Supt. James Henderson at a Nov. 15 D209 school board meeting at PMSA in Forest Park. Ashley Stohl, one of the group’s founders, is on the far right.

Stohl said some of her classes have up to 50 students in them and she’s been affected by what she and others have described as an exodus of veteran teachers from D209 under Henderson’s tenure. In October, Stohl founded the Facebook group Students for a Better Proviso and spoke up during a Nov 15 board meeting in defense of four teachers of color who were up for termination.

While the board did not terminate the teachers, three of them are currently serving a 20-day unpaid suspension by the district for student protests, an allegation that both the teachers and students – including Stohl – deny. The Proviso Teachers Union has filed for arbitration after their initial appeal to the board was denied.

District 209 School Board President Della Patterson

At the Nov. 15 meeting, Stohl handed board President Della Patterson, Rodney Alexander and Supt. Henderson bags of peanuts, in reference to Supt. Henderson’s tendency to describe those who have been critical of his administration the “peanut gallery.” Patterson called Stohl’s actions racist.

“Did you only give peanuts to Black people?” Patterson asked Stohl, who is white.

“I only have three bags left,” Stohl said.

In an interview shortly after his daughter was suspended for five days, Mark Stohl said while he does not condone her actions, he believes the punishment is excessive and that the process by which Ashley was suspended was inappropriate and possibly illegal.

District 209 School Board President Rodney Alexander. Provided

“Everything up to now has stemmed from the way the board has been running things,” Mark Stohl said. “Teachers have seen injustices towards students as far as their learning environments and resources, and the teachers have spoken up about getting better resources and environments for the children and have been disciplined for speaking up about that. Now, the children don’t know who to speak up to about it and when they see their teachers are speaking up about it and being disciplined, the children heavily support their teachers. The board is retaliating against teachers and now students.”

Mark and Ashley Stohl said they didn’t know that “peanut gallery,” a late 19th century Vaudeville-era term that refers to the cheapest and rowdiest seats in a theater, is also construed as having racial connotations due to Blacks being confined to that area of the theater.

“She handed [the peanut bags] out to the people on the school board who are the rudest to her personally,” Mark Stohl said. “She handed one to Henderson because he’s the one who initiated the whole ‘peanut gallery’ thing. They’re invoking a double standard. I raised my children right. She doesn’t have a racial bone in her body and to her, she didn’t know this was a racial thing, yet she’s being targeted by the school board president as racist.”

Scott Hadala

Stohl said that she was suspended on Dec. 11, even though she scribbled on the photo on Nov. 17. Stohl said that during the disciplinary meeting, the district’s HR officer, Scott Hadala, showed up and that she was being questioned without the presence of her father. She said she had to ask administrators to call her father. She said it was the second time she’d been questioned by HR without the school notifying her parents.

“He’s previously interviewed me and a student after we found out he’s not supposed to question students without parental consent or a social worker,” Ashley said, referencing the process by which district administrators were attempting to find out if teachers helped students create posters criticizing Henderson and his administration, allegations that led to the four teachers of color being threatened with termination.

“After that [first] meeting, Scott fabricated an entire story about how we gave him teacher names so those teachers could be put up for termination. None of the teachers were actually behind any of that.”

Mark Stohl said he paid for the poster board and markers, adding that the teachers “were an inspiration not instigators. You would think that smart administrators would love to have teachers respected by students.”

Ashley and Mark Stohl said Henderson himself showed up to the disciplinary hearing that preceded Ashley’s five-day suspension.

“It’s a rarity for [Henderson] to show up at West,” Mark Stohl said. “They initially told us she would be suspended for two to three days. Ashley called me to say she had been called back into the principal’s office and as she was waiting there, Henderson walked into the room where she was going into. As he left, he looked at Ashley and had a smirk on his face. And when I got to the school, we were told she’d be suspended for five days. It was a very strange coincidence.”

During her public comments at the Nov. 15 board meeting, teacher Jennifer LaBash said that “we’re digging up your skeletons and we’re going to find them … your tax liens and other stuff you’re doing and Jimmie, we’ll find yours.”

“You’re not going to disrespect that Black man!” Patterson interjected, before urging security guards to escort LaBash out of the room. Roughly a month later, she was terminated.

At the Dec. 13 board meeting, where members voted for LaBash’s termination, many students, teachers, and parents accused the district of disciplining LaBash and Stohl out of retaliation for criticizing the district on how it manages its funds and treats teachers.

“We have asked the board and Superintendent Henderson time and again to work with us, through the process in our contract, to settle grievances and handle personnel issues as they arise. Every time, we’re ignored. Our goal is to establish a collaborative relationship with district leadership to solve these issues,” said Proviso Teachers Union President John Wardisiani in a statement. “We will continue to stand up and fight for our students and the educators who serve them.”

During the open comment period nearly all the testimonies from teachers, students, and parents were critical of the district for their response during the November board meeting.

“Although I do not fully condone Ashley’s actions, I do not believe that this small offense would warrant such a large punishment,” said Max Olszta, a student at Proviso West High School and a member of Students for a Better Proviso. “

Olszta also claimed the district’s actions violated Illinois Senate Bill 100, which states that “out-of-school suspensions of longer than three days, expulsions, and disciplinary removals to alternative schools may be used only if other appropriate and available behavioral and disciplinary interventions have been exhausted.”

Olszta, Mark Stohl and Ashley Stohl said that no other interventions were made prior to Stohl being suspended.

Micaela Soto, a teacher at Proviso East High School in Maywood, told the board she loves the district and is very invested in it. She graduated from Proviso East and her own children currently attend school in the district.

“We’re teachers and when it comes to our students, we will defend them vigorously,” Soto told the board. “Ms. Jenny LaBash, I love her. She is amazing and just because you all have a personal vendetta against her, she should not be terminated.”

Soto also accused the district of violating the collective bargaining agreement made with the teacher’s union for not paying several teachers.

“We also have cases of teachers who have gone above and beyond to attempt to fill the gaps in our district. They’ve taken on supervisory roles and covered extra classes, and while our contract outlines a process for compensating teachers for this extra work, District 209 has failed to pay them,” PTU President Wardisiani said in a statement.

Multiple board members criticized the D209 administration for allowing an HR officer to question Stohl.

D209 board member Amanda Grant

“We need to be very, very careful that we are not violating SB 100 and giving five-day, out-of-school suspensions for offenses that have not gone through any kind of disciplinary chain,” said board member Amanda Grant. “Any student who is disciplined should be meeting with counselors. I also feel that it is incredibly inappropriate to have the director of HR be interrogating students. This has happened a few times now … that is not what he’s here for. We have counselors, teachers, interventionists and social workers for our students and we need to be utilizing them.”

Grant also noted that the district was applying a double standard by chastising Stohl for playing on the term “peanut gallery” when Henderson has used the term publicly several times to castigate those critical of his administration. She also lambasted the superintendent for what she called his retaliatory attacks on teachers and students.

“It just turns my stomach,” she said. “Dr. Henderson, you need to resign. This is not working. I can’t think of a single good thing that’s happened in the past two years … We were assured you knew how to communicate, work with different groups, support teachers. We see none of that … We are losing teachers. We are hemorrhaging teachers and staff … These are good teachers … How is this student-centered, student-focused? It’s not.”

Board member Sam Valtierrez urged students under 18 to call their parents and go to a counselor if they get in trouble.

“For the record, Mr. Valtierrez, the parent was present,” Henderson said, referencing Stohl’s second disciplinary hearing. The superintendent, however, did not address Ashley Stohl’s and Mark Stohl’s claims that Mark was not present for the first interrogation earlier this year and that she had to call her father herself for the disciplinary meeting she had in December.

The Stohls also questioned why it took nearly a month for administrators to discipline her for defacing property. Stohl said she believes the action was taken a month later so her out-of-school suspension would prohibit her from attending the Dec. 13 board meeting.

Henderson regularly declines requests for comment and district officials indicated at the Dec. 13 meeting that they cannot disclose too many details of Stohl’s disciplinary action due to privacy and policy concerns.

At the Dec. 13 meeting, President Patterson said that “with students, we have to be extremely careful if we don’t know all of the facts. I’m not going to [identify the student’s name]. I am aware of what took place. Technically, this could have been worse than what actually took place for a particular student. There are certain activities you cannot participate in. I’m going to leave that there.”

The next board meeting will be held Jan. 10 at Proviso West High School in Hillside.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com