Madison - St. Clair Record

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Court backs students, parents, ex-middle school basketball coaches in discrimination, retaliation case

Federal Court

By John Breslin | Oct 11, 2019


BENTON - Two students, their parents, including a former middle school basketball coach and his two assistants can proceed with their racial discrimination and retaliation allegations claims against an O'Fallon school district, its board president, staff members and a union representative.

The suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois was filed by the two mixed race students, identified as A.A. and C.P, along with their parents, another parent, coach Todd Porter and two assistants, Marcus Gregory and Christopher Boykin. The three coaches are African American.

Chief Judge Nancy Rosenstengel ruled Sept. 30 against Central School District 104 Board of Education in O'Fallon, one of the teachers, and, in large part, the union official after they filed motions to dismiss the action.

Theophilius Afogho and Stephanie Afogho are suing as next friends of A.A., and Porter as next friend of C.P.  They argue the two students, allegedly described as "slaves" by a student council adviser, were discriminated and retaliated against in violation of federal and state civil rights statutes.

In addition, the three coaches are also suing under the same statutes, alleging there was a link between complaints made over the remarks and the district failing to renew their contracts despite success on the court.

In court documents, the defendants all deny the allegations, and argued to dismiss, alleging that the plaintiffs fail to state a claim or properly articulate that they have standing. Further, it is argued that, in reference to the coaches, too much time passed between the genesis of the controversy, complaints, and the alleged retaliation.

District Superintendent Dawn Esler did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Record.

Central School District 104 in O'Fallon oversees two schools, Central Elementary School (CES) and Joseph Arthur Middle School (JAMS), which the minor plaintiffs attended, Both were members of the student council.

The action has its roots in a meeting of the council in January 2017. It is alleged a teacher and student council adviser referred to the two minor plaintiffs as her "slaves" in front of other students and forced them to perform personal tasks for her. When a Caucasian student asked also to be a "slave," the teacher allegedly refused.

The incident was reported to then District Superintendent John Bute, and the parents reportedly then complained repeatedly to the board and its president, Sarah Svoboda, who is also named as a defendant.

It is alleged that "as a result of the efforts by the plaintiffs to report and oppose the racial discrimination, the defendants undertook actions to intimidate and retaliate against C.P., A.A., their parents, and others who associated with them."

According to the complaint, a number of the African-American students began to appear on a list barring them from playing. Later, at a school board meeting, the "slave" incident allegedly was raised by the parents, who were supported by, among others, the two assistant coaches.

At a special board meeting in February, other students spoke in opposition to the retaliation and discrimination complaints. Those students, it is alleged, later met in a classroom for pizza with two teachers and the union representative.

A group of teachers, including the individual defendants, sat in the front row of the board meetings, all wearing matching union shirts, an effort, it is alleged, to intimidate the plaintiffs.

Porter, who took the middle school varsity basketball team to the Illinois state tournament in 2017 for the first time in school history, was relieved of his position as coach, as were the two assistants. 

The various plaintiffs listed 28 separate counts, mostly violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the state Civil Rights Act.

Rosenstengel, in her order, noted that the plaintiff must “clearly allege facts demonstrating each element required to establish he has standing."

In this case, the coaches claim that "discrimination in employment has necessarily caused discrimination against the primary beneficiaries of the federal aid."

Rosenstengel agreed there was standing to claim "discriminatory and retaliatory conduct" toward Porter, Gregory, and Boykin.

Among the arguments put forward by the defendants was that the length of time that passed between the initial complaints, the board meetings and the non-renewal of the contracts was sufficiently lengthy to negate the retaliatory claim. This argument was rejected by the judge.

The allegations made by A.A. and C.P., are "sufficiently clear to put [the] defendants on notice of the causes of action they are facing from each plaintiff," Rosenstengel wrote.

The judge did grant the motion to dismiss with regard to the allegation against the Illinois Central Federation of Teachers.

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