Four teachers are uniting against alleged retaliation taken by Proviso Township High School District 209 and Supt. James Henderson after vocalizing their discontent in regards to issues facing the three schools in the district.
The lawsuit, filed on March 6, names the Plaintiffs as Jenny LaBash, Carissa Gillespie, Nicole O’Connor and Danielle English, and state that the district and Henderson have “carried out a policy or practice of punishing the Plaintiff teachers for both speech and association rights protected by the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit continues claiming that the district and Henderson, listed as defendants in the case “have unlawfully suspended, discharged, or threatened discharge of the four Plaintiff teachers for repeated public criticism of the serious administrative failings of defendants,” following the two-week strike by District 209 teachers in March 2022.
“We thought long and hard about this lawsuit because we know how it looks,” LaBash said, adding they had tried to go down various other routes including filing complaints with OSHA, with the Civil Rights Division and others to draw attention to “the fire going on.”
In March 2022, 280 members of the Proviso Teachers Union went on strike in hopes of addressing issues such as compensation and class sizes.
A second student-led protest occurred in October 2022 by a group called Students for a Better Proviso, who voiced their frustrations over deteriorating conditions in their schools including a teacher shortage, poor food, and overcrowded classrooms.
According to the lawsuit and previous reports in the Forest Park Review, students had stated that the protest was student-led and did not involve any teachers.
Nicole O’Connor, who began with the district in 2006, said Henderson removed her from her role as student counselor at Proviso West, which she held for 12 years, and moved her without her knowledge or approval to a new role as a business teacher at Proviso East.
According to the lawsuit, “by virtue of this new assignment, Defendants were able to transfer Plaintiff O’Connor out of the Proviso West building where she had served as an on-site union representative defending union members.”
“A hundred percent I do,” O’Connor answered, asking if she felt the move in position was direct retaliation.
O’Connor said she had spent years building relationships with her students, fellow faculty, and the community to be able to advocate for working conditions and support for students.
“Them moving me out of my building eliminated any of my power and relationships that I had with the teachers for the last 12 years,” O’Connor said. “Now, no longer am I doing something that I’ve been training for, professional development, professional relationships, community organizations that I’m familiar with and working with students…he just ripped that, in the middle of a pandemic.”
LaBash said O’Connor’s move, along with Gillespie’s removal as a paid summer school teacher, a post she held for 18 years, have gone to arbitration.
“The teachers involved in the lawsuit, we have never been disciplined, we have never had any disciplinary action in our combined 60 plus years of being with the district,” Gillespie, an English teacher at Proviso West, said. “Not because we have never done anything, not because we are so slick and we know how to get around things but it’s because when we come in, we do our jobs, above and beyond.”
Not all teachers in the lawsuit were able to keep a position with the district, as LaBash was terminated on Dec. 13 allegedly due to speaking out during a Nov. 15 board meeting. According to the lawsuit, LaBash was fired for “speaking with racial intent in criticizing the Defendants and for disrupting a public meeting.” Gillespie said the district’s portrayal of LaBash as a “Karen,” is inaccurate.
“I don’t know any Karen’s that go to board meetings, put their career on the line, to advocate for Black and Brown students, Karen’s don’t do that,” Gillespie said.
English, who resigned from her position as a science teacher at Proviso West, did not want to publicly comment on the lawsuit.
Henderson did not respond to any requests for comment and messages left at the school district offices were not returned. When asked for a comment, board secretary Samuel Valtierrez directed all questions to Henderson and Della Patterson, board president.
Patterson, along with Vice President Theresa Kelly and board members Rodney Alexander, Amanda Grant and Ned Wagner were not able to be reached for comment.
When reached for comment regarding the lawsuit, board member Claudia Medina responded by saying, “Yes. It is absolutely true.”
Prior to Henderson’s arrival, Gillespie said the district, which did have struggles, otherwise was able to maintain a solid foundation that included a booming IT department and a full-staff.
“We were a pretty well functioning school, test scores not excellent, but we were a functioning school, we were thriving, until Dr. Henderson came on to our district and began to make complete cuts to our district,” Gillespie said.
According to Gillespie, faculty at Proviso said they witnessed a shift in open lines of communication between the board, faculty, and families.
“It became an authoritative dictatorship where if you are questioning, you are racists,” Gillespie said, adding that the district had always worked hard to push a message of “One Proviso” to help make the schools an inclusive and accepting place for everyone. However, Gillespie said that under Henderson, tensions have risen. “There has been a lot of racial divide and that is something that he has used, ‘well you must be attacking this person because he is a Black man.” No. The question comes because incompetence has no color…that is not because of his color, that is because of his action and his record.”
The educators said their goal is to continue to bring attention to the issues that Proviso schools are facing, for retaliation to stop, for people to ask why board members allow a superintendent who does not have the students best interest in mind to continue to lead the district.
The lawsuit seeks to reinstate English and LaBash along with expunging any disciplinary suspensions for O’Connor and Gillespie. The teachers also seek to be granted damages for their loss of income and legal fees.
With hopes of getting back into the classrooms, the teachers seek to sound the alarm as they believe their duty requires them too.
“We are mandated reporters, that means that by law, we can be legally held if we don’t report abuse. The understanding that we are mandated reporters should not change when the abusers are the districts. Our voices should be protected and respected,” Gillespie said. “And that is something that this superintendent, backed by this board majority, have not done.”