EAST ST. LOUIS — Two staff members at a Metro East St. Louis preschool program were placed on administrative leave this week after authorities investigated claims that students were punished by having to stand naked in a classroom closet.
The teachers are employed at the Head Start program operated by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and lead a class of about 20 preschoolers, said SIUE police Chief Kevin Schmoll.
Police believe some of the students, ages 4 and 5, were punished by having to remove all of their clothes and stand for several minutes in the classroom closet before redressing and coming back to class, Schmoll said.
The department first got a tip of inappropriate behavior in the classroom Thursday morning after a parent complained to the program about stories she was hearing from her son, Schmoll said.
Officers interviewed people connected to the program and soon discovered at least four young boys in the classroom had been punished this way, Schmoll said.
Police allege a 26-year-old teacher, who had been with the program for three years, led the punishment beginning in early February. A 41-year-old aide, who had been with the program for five years, is accused of observing the punishment and not reporting it.
Schmoll said both teachers admitted to investigators that nudity was used as a discipline technique in the classroom.
"We are continuing to interview students, so there may be more victims we don't know about yet," Schmoll said.
Program leaders sent a letter home to parents this week explaining that a "child safety violation" occurred in the classroom.
"Under no circumstances does the program condone or tolerate inappropriate treatment towards children, family or staff," the letter stated.
The St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office is expected to review the case for possible charges, Schmoll said.
"The little boy who first reported it was very brave for coming forward," Schmoll said. "That is how we were able to discover this in the first place."