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Preschool teacher pleads guilty to making children stand naked in closet

Preschool teacher pleads guilty to making children stand naked in closet

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One of two East St. Louis preschool workers accused of making children stand naked in a closet as punishment for misbehavior in 2019 has pleaded guilty to five felonies, including aggravated battery and unlawful restraint.

Sentencing for former teacher Mary M. Agbehia, 28, of South Holland, near Chicago, is set for Sept. 7 in St. Clair County Circuit Court. She lived in Edwardsville at the time of her arrest.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville operates the federally funded Head Start program where the two women worked. It's located at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis.

"Mary Agbehia left the employment of the university in July of 2019," SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga said Monday. "Any other outstanding legal issues were taken over by the state at that point."

Agbehia entered her guilty plea on Friday, according to the St. Clair County circuit clerk's office. Her trial had been scheduled to start Monday.

Agbehia's attorney, Jessica Koester, declined to comment.

Shavonda L. Willis, 43, of Fairview Heights, a teacher's aide also charged in connection with the case, has a status hearing scheduled for Tuesday, according to court records.

Agbehia had been charged with two counts of aggravated battery, a Class 3 felony, related to allegations that she took off off a boy's shirt; five counts of unlawful restraint, a Class 4 felony, related to allegations that she ordered children to stand in the closet; and one count of violating reporting provisions, a Class A misdemeanor.

Two counts of unlawful restraint and the misdemeanor charge would be dismissed under a partial plea agreement with the St. Clair County state's attorney's office.

A judge will decide whether Agbehia is sentenced to prison or probation. Class 4 felonies can result in one to three years in prison; Class 3 felonies can result in two to five years.

Willis is charged with four counts of aggravated battery, a Class 3 felony, related to allegations that she touched a girl with an object used to pretend she was giving the children an injection; five counts of unlawful restraint, a Class 4 felony, related to allegations that she ordered children to stand in the closet; and one count of violating reporting provisions, a Class A misdemeanor.

On March 18, 2019, SIUE Police Chief Kevin Schmoll reported that a Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center supervisor had alerted police four days earlier that a teacher was making children ages 4 and 5 stand in a closet naked with the door open for five or 10 minutes before they could put their clothes back on and rejoin class.

This form of punishment reportedly had been used for about a month and a half and involved at least four children who had misbehaved by talking or not listening. A boy in the class of 20 children told his mother.

"This is 1) inappropriate and 2) illegal," Schmoll said at the time, noting there were no signs of physical or sexual abuse.

Three detectives were sent to the center to investigate as soon as police were notified, he said. The Department of Child and Family Services was contacted to interview the children.

The university put Agbehia and Willis, who weren't named publicly at first, on paid administrative leave. St. Clair County officials announced on May 1, 2019, that criminal charges had been filed.

At the time, SIUE Human Resources Director Bob Thumith used the words "crystal clear" to describe the university's screening and hiring processes, which included background and criminal-records checks.

"Let me put it to you this way, if (Agbehia and Willis) were to apply today, they would be attractive candidates absent the current situation," he said.

Agbehia reportedly was hired in 2016, and Willis was hired in 2013.

They went through "extensive" training on dealing with children, along with the rest of the staff, according to Thumith.

"I can't explain it," he said at the time. "We've done everything in our control in terms of training ... codes of conduct, codes of ethics, handbooks always prescribe behavior which is prohibited by Head Start regulations and even common sense."

Head Start programs like the one in East St. Louis are federally funded and offered to families who otherwise couldn't afford preschool to get their children ready for kindergarten.

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