Foundation of White Chalk Crime = Teacher Abuse
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 reporter
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.
Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune