Teacher suicide blamed on bullying by local school administrators in Ford Heights Illinois

Workplace bullying and fear prevalent in Ford Heights south of Chicago? Teachers think so, and are finally speaking out — too late for one teacher. The story, typical of many that could be told, reminded those of us at Substance of the suicide of English teacher Joseph Hillebrand of Chicago ten years ago. Hillebrand, whose last teaching job was at Farragut High School, was eliminated by Principal Eduardo Guerra, who later went on to draw a near six-figure pension and get jobs in various suburbs. Guerra bragged that he was doing his own "Reconstitution" at Farragut, getting rid of veteran teachers. Hillabrand, too, walked out in front of a moving vehicle, a Metra train. Substance was the only media to cover the story in depth.


Teacher's suicide stuns school, spurs colleagues to speak out. School board surprised by allegations of workplace bullying and fear. By Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Tribune,0,1207321.story

January 1, 2012

On Thanksgiving, a grade-school gym teacher parked on the shoulder of Interstate 80/94 in northwest Indiana, got out of her Mercury SUV and walked in front of a moving semi truck.

The 32-year-old's suicide shocked the tiny Ford Heights school district where she worked. In the days afterward, tension grew amid conversations by co-workers about what had happened and questions from the Army veteran's parents. The turmoil peaked during a crowded meeting in December, when some teachers and school board members clashed.

The suicide note that Mary Thorson left centered on frustrations at the school, and her death spurred some of her co-workers to speak out at the public meeting.

Teachers described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the two-school district, where little things snowballed over time.

"We don't feel like we can speak out because we have been intimidated," teacher Rose Jimerson said at the meeting. "We have signs all over the building about anti-bullying. … Our staff gets bullied."

Co-workers and friends said in interviews that Thorson was deeply upset by her job and was worried she was on the verge of being fired. She had been suspended in April after allegedly striking a student and again a week before her death, records show. The second suspension was for allegedly cursing at a student, a co-worker said.

Even some of those close to Thorson acknowledged that it's difficult to pinpoint why anyone commits suicide, but her death opened wounds in the district. School district officials have vowed to work on healing with new channels of communication.

School board members and the administration expressed sorrow over Thorson's death but also surprise at the way some teachers described the work atmosphere.

At the meeting, board members denied the allegations and asked why no one had come forward with such concerns.

"If you guys would have come and brought allegations and we didn't address it, then you would have every right to say what you need to say," Board President Joe Sherman said.

Thorson, known as Coach T, left behind a handwritten, six-page note in her SUV. Other than one paragraph in which she apologized to her parents for the hurt her death would cause, the rest of the note was exclusively about Ford Heights School District 169.

Thorson's parents agreed to share the note with the Tribune. In it, Thorson wrote, sometimes rambling, about the plight of children in the poor school district and the lack of resources and discipline. She also wrote about the school's leadership and said teachers were not taken seriously.

"We must speak up about what's going on!" The note concludes: "This life has been unbelievable."

Thorson had started her teaching career after an eight-year stint in the Army Reserve, where she attained the rank of specialist and served honorably, said Army spokesman Mark Edwards. She joined in 1998, just out of high school, to help pay for college, said her father, John Thorson.

Thorson was the first in her family to graduate from college, getting a diploma from Western Illinois University in 2005. She worked at schools in Chicago and Bellwood before taking a job in Ford Heights at Cottage Grove Upper Grade Center in 2008.

The students "loved her," said Walter Cunningham, who taught physical education with Thorson. "She treated them like a daughter or son. They all gravitated toward her."

Like many of the teachers there, Thorson used her own money to buy students school supplies or warm clothes if she saw a need, Cunningham said. More than 98 percent of the 520 students in the district are considered low-income, according to state records.

In April, Thorson was suspended for two days after allegedly hitting a child, though Thorson said it was a playful tap, according to personnel records provided by her family.

Thorson had complained about feeling targeted by school administrators, said her father. "She was worried about keeping her job there," he said.

Her parents said they urged her to find a job closer to her hometown of Moline, Ill., or to go to graduate school, but she was attached to the children of Ford Heights. In the note, she spoke of her love for the children and her pain at their daily trials.

"They were her life," said her mother, Shari Thorson. "She did not want to leave."

A week before her death, Mary Thorson suffered what she thought was a crushing blow to her career, Cunningham said. On Nov. 17, she was suspended with pay, records show. The suspension was for allegedly cursing at a student, Cunningham said. She was to have a meeting Nov. 22 to discuss the incident, according to records, but colleagues and family said Thorson skipped it.

"She was so distraught," Cunningham said. "She was convinced they were going to fire her."

Sherman said the board had no intention of firing Thorson.

Thorson was expected home the night of Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, and the family planned to celebrate the holiday the next day. When the police showed up, Thorson's mother didn't believe they had the right person.

"She always let people use her car," Shari Thorson explained in the living room of her Moline home, about 160 miles west of Chicago.

Her parents found Thorson's personnel records neatly laid out on the bed in her apartment, her father said.

Family and friends said Thorson had no ongoing problems in her personal life. Thorson never had been treated for mental health issues, and there were no drugs found in her Griffith, Ind., apartment, her family said. During her time in the Army, she did not serve in Iraq or Afghanistan or any conflicts that might have affected her mental health, her parents said.

The Lake County, Ind., coroner ruled Thorson's death a suicide. There was no toxicology report, authorities said.

At the first school board meeting after Thorson's suicide, a standing-room-only crowd of teachers, parents and observers packed a classroom at Medgar Evers Primary Academic Center.

Jimerson was the first to speak during the public comment portion of the Dec. 6 meeting. She said Thorson's death saddened the teachers in the district and spurred her to come before the board.

"People are afraid," Lena Watts-Drake, president of the District 169 teachers union, told the board.

Other teachers in the crowd murmured "uh-huh" and nodded in agreement.

Jimerson said at the meeting that teachers get chastised for taking sick days and are worried they will lose their jobs if they speak up. In an interview later, Jimerson said some teachers are cornered and criticized by district administrators in hallways. Two current teachers and one former teacher, who did not want to be named for fear of retribution, made similar statements and agreed with Jimerson's description of the atmosphere.

At the meeting, school board members denied knowledge of such conditions. "You're not going to lose your job because you express how you feel," Sherman said.

In an interview later, Supt. Gregory Jackson said he felt ambushed at the meeting, adding that it was difficult to respond because teachers didn't offer enough specifics.

"Saying it doesn't make it so," he said. "To say they're afraid and not offer any examples or any one person specifically, so we can consider the matter … it's unfair to react to non-specifics."

He spoke little at the meeting except to address Jimerson, who said there was a feeling of hopelessness among the teachers.

"If you are implying that I had something to do with Coach T taking her life …" Jackson began.

"I did not say that," Jimerson interrupted.

"That's what I interpreted from your comments, but if you're saying that's not what you're saying, I accept that," Jackson said.

In later interviews, Sherman pledged to have discussions about the allegations of intimidation and bullying, and Jackson welcomed teachers to discuss issues with him or the union.

Sherman defended the superintendent as someone who likes structure and follows guidelines by the book. He also pointed to the leaps the district has made on state test results. When Jackson arrived in 2006, 45.5 percent of students in the district were meeting or exceeding state standards. In 2011, that number was 70.4 percent. The school district still does not meet federal standards in reading, though it does in math, records show.

Thorson's parents did not attend the meeting, but their feelings about their daughter's death are clear.

"She didn't kill herself out of spite. She did it to try to save that school," Shari Thorson said.

"Is the school responsible? Yes, the school is responsible," John Thorson added.

Ford Heights School District 169 attorney Raymond Hauser said it was unfair to blame the school district for the suicide.


January 3, 2012 at 4:18 AM

By: Susan Geuder

Joseph Hillebrand

I knew Joe because I worked at Farragut at the time. My job was also taken from me after reporting Ed Guerra of changing grades, a charge that would be investigated again in later years. The charges weren't pursued because Guerra went on to Waukegan. After six months, however, he was let go from there for reasons unknown. He now works for Chicago once more at a charter school on the Southside.

January 3, 2012 at 7:37 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Ford Heights one of the poorest districts in the state

The Ford Heights school district 169 according to ISBE records has probably the lowest tax base of any district in the state other than East St. Louis. I am very surprised at the ISAT test score improvement in the Tribune article that Superintendent Gregory Jackson reported. The district is very small so a shift of a hand full of students can yield a large improvement and the Tribune article never looked at this issue at all.

One way a school district like SD 169 shows big improvement is by moving more students with IEPs out of taking the ISAT and into the much easier IAA. ISBE has allowed numerous school districts to have waivers over the 2% cap on the number of total students allowed to take the IAA. These students’ scores which almost always are at standards are then added to the AYP total of students at or above standards for NCLB purposes.

I have only looked at SD 169 data for grade 8 and because of ISBE rules all scores for 2011 reading levels of students with IEPs are suppressed (10 student subgroup rule). But by using relatively simple algebra one can easily determine that no students with IEPs at grade eight were able to read at state standards if they took the ISAT. This is typical of what is happening in poverty stricken south suburbs where special education services are even worse than in CPS. The districts are targeting students most likely to pass the ISAT and shifting resources to them and placing higher functioning disabled students into the alternative test whenever possible to get them out of the ISAT testing pool. ISBE has been granting waviers on the alternative tests in poor south suburban school districts without auditing them to examine if the children granted the waivers actually have some type of significant cognitive impairment that would qualify them to take the IAA.

The contents of suicide note that Mary Thorson left behind reflect the reality of SD 169 that special education advocates see in that district. The district completely lacks effective resources and sits in one of the most corrupt incorporated cities in our state, which does say a lot given our state.

I am glad Substance ran this story because it is important for teachers in the city to realize that as bad as they feel their situations are, there are in fact small school districts in our state with great poverty that are in fact in even worse shape than the CPS.

Rod Estvan

January 3, 2012 at 1:08 PM

By: Bob Busch

NFG's or FNGs...

Listen Kids

I mean you young teachers! The school's microphone was kept under the counter in the library. There was going to be a meeting so I went to get the equipment. TFA was having a boot camp secession in there so I walked in and looked at them, all young, mostly white, full of piss and vinegar — instant silence.

They shot looks at me that showed pure terror. Here was a walking piece of reality thrown into their world of pre conceived notions. A old fat stooped teacher limping right through their party. I should have stopped and told them “Don’t bring your lunch. You won’t be there long enough to eat"... but I just kept on going out the door.

None of those kids had any idea of what lay ahead. Personally, I do not dislike TFA teachers and I know that only two or three of them will still be teaching in six years. But everybody has to start somewhere. I would like to offer this piece of advice. Keep your head out of the job. If you allow yourself to get involved in the drama and horror of some kids' lives it will drive you nuts, which is what we call burning out.

Screw bad administrators. Most got their jobs because of who they know.

Once a lout from downtown came to my Library and said we did not have enough books. When I whipped out the state standards, she paused and when I said how many should we have she literally ran away. Take care of one another. The poor lady that committed suicide must have showed some signs of duress. No job is worth your life.

May 1, 2012 at 1:02 PM

By: Ladell jones

'Coach T...'

One thing i can truely say is things are what people see. I am a former school board member in Ford Heights, and with the way thing are being done — and the board acts like they don't see — then our kids are in big big trouble. They did everything in their power to get me off the board and they did even Mr. jackson with a lot of his lies, but they don't understand everyone is not as strong as me. And Coach T was one of them, so somewhere down the line someone will have to pay for a life is gone. And it will never be back until jesus comes back.

So when you look at school district 169 over the past years, you understand why the drop-out rate from our kids when they get to high school is what it is. So i hope the people from ford hts. read this and check into what's going on in your villiage.

June 28, 2014 at 7:02 AM

By: Tasha Woodson

Ford Heights

I was born and raised in Ford Heights, IL and my children were born here not raised here. I recently returned to Ford Heights after 9 years and my kids have been bullied ,beaten up and afraid to goto school. Cottage Grove replies its not on school property we cant do anything,yes when parents tell you about their kids being bullied handle the situation by calling police or the bullies parents. To keep our children safe we pick them up 30 min before school lets out. Shame!!!!!!

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