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School District Plans To Hire More People Of Color After Racial Discrimination Complaint

School resource officer Cheryl Venorsky talks with several of the older High Mount School students.
Derik Holtmann | Belleville News-Democrat
School resource officer Cheryl Venorsky talks with several of the older High Mount School students.

After High Mount School’s only black educator in May heard the superintendent say he didn’t want “black kids” in the front office when a reporter and photographer would be visiting, she filed a complaint.

Superintendent Mark Halwachs was investigated by the High Mount 116 school board president. As a result, he was required to undergo diversity training and told to start actively recruiting more people of color to the nearly all-white staff, which led to a three-year plan of action, covering 2020. He faced suspension if he didn’t.

During the investigation, Halwachs explained that what he meant to say instead of “black kids” was students in detention, who typically lined up in that area, according to a district report.

Documents related to the investigation and the plan were recently released to the Belleville News-Democrat through a public records request.

Debra Wolf, the board president who investigated the complaint, described Halwachs’ comment as regrettable, but “inadvertent and unintentional” in her report to the board.

“Mr. Halwachs said that his intent was to avoid having students who were serving detention being photographed, as it would send the wrong message about High Mount students,” Wolf’s report stated. “He said, ‘We have great kids.’”

Mark Halwachs, High Mount School District 116 Superintendent
Mark Halwachs, High Mount School District 116 Superintendent
provided via Belleville News-Democrat

Neither Halwachs nor the school board members responded to a request for further comment about the results of the investigation.

On average in the last five years, black students comprised about one-third of High Mount School’s enrollment. Wolf acknowledged in her report that the school staff doesn’t reflect that diversity.

In the five months since the investigation, school board meeting minutes show the district has hired eight new employees — mostly teachers’ aides. Halwachs said three of the new classroom aides are black.

School social worker Yvette Hicks was the employee who filed the complaint against Halwachs in May, stating that he didn’t want black children photographed for a BND article that featured High Mount’s school resource officer.

Hicksdied unexpectedly last year from a stroke before the investigation was discussed publicly at a special school board meeting in August.

Wolf, the board president, read a prepared statement at that meeting, which was provided to the BND.

“During my last conversation with Ms. Hicks, she told me that she saw this discrimination issue as a school- and community-wide issue, not just with Mr. Halwachs and that her wishes were to have the entire staff at HMS take diversity and sensitivity training to understand how to deal with our student demographics,” Wolf wrote in the statement. “… She further stated that she wanted to see more minority staff hired at HMS.”

Jason Caraway, the attorney who represented Hicks, couldn’t be reached for comment.

High Mount School social worker Yvette Hicks is pictured in this August 2017 Belleville News-Democrat file photo. Hicks died Aug. 21, 2018 after suffering a stroke.
Zia Nizami | Belleville News-Democrat

After going through training titled “culturally relevant teaching” in October, Halwachs wrote in a message to the board that he planned to apologize to the staff for the comment. He characterized it as culturally insensitive.

Along with that message, Halwachs submitted the three-year plan for the district, according to documents provided to the BND. He said that it had been looked over by an “equity committee” made up of administrators, teachers and aides.

Among the stated goals are to improve the existing staff’s “cultural awareness” and to hire more people of color to classroom, administrative and staff positions.

The single-school district has about 450 students and 28 teachers on average. Those teachers are almost all white women now. There are two administrators: a superintendent and a principal, who are both white men.

“High Mount values diversity and inclusion,” Halwachs wrote in the message to the board. “I and my staff believe that the myriad of ways in which we differ offers a richness that enhances our school. With actions and words, we are taking proactive, daily behaviors to make each person feel welcome and empowered.”

High Mount isn’t the only school district lacking people of color.

About a quarter of the districts in the metro-east had only white teachers last year, according to the latest state data, which is down from 2017, when there had been even more districts with all-white teaching staffs.

Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, where this article was originally published.

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