University of Chicago charter school to pay $125,000 after video showed teachers mock special education student, call him ‘dumb’

A University of Chicago charter school will pay $125,000 to a special education student who was mocked by his teachers and called “dumb” during a disturbing incident captured on video, according to court records.

A federal judge recently approved the payout, which will resolve a civil rights lawsuit that the student’s mother filed on her son’s behalf late last year. The school — which quickly removed the teachers from the classroom — did not admit any wrongdoing in reaching the settlement.

In a statement, the charter school said it was working with employees to reinforce the best ways to support students, families and staff following the incident.

“The University of Chicago Charter School has a longstanding commitment to educational excellence, with deep care and concern for the wellbeing of all students,” the statement said. “We do not condone or tolerate the type of conduct that occurred on December 15, 2022 at the Woodlawn High School Campus, which is contrary to our policies and values. We believe all students have a right to education in a school that is welcoming and protective, in an environment of mutual respect.”

“It happened. It was traumatic. And the trauma is going to last a long time,” said attorney Jordan Marsh, who represented the boy and his mother. “But I think it’s a fair settlement and (the boy’s mother) thinks it’s a fair settlement.”

The resolution comes a few months after the Tribune published audio from a video of the incident, which took place at the charter school’s Woodlawn campus in December 2022. The minute-long recording, captured on another student’s cellphone, offered a troubling glimpse inside the publicly funded high school overseen by the prestigious university.

The video shows both adults, a teacher and a teacher’s aide, yelling at and belittling the 15-year-old student, who does not raise his voice above a mumble and remains seated at his desk until he is ordered to leave the classroom. The Tribune did not publish the video because it showed several special education students not directly involved in the incident.

As the recording begins, special education teacher Aaron Pennix walks up to the teen, who is seated near a window. The teacher “bends over the desk, hovering, and puts his face in front of” the student’s face, according to an internal report describing the recording.

Pennix stands over the boy and yells, “You not gonna do what?” according to the video. The teen mumbles a response, saying he did not want to talk.

The teacher then points at the student’s face, while the teen “is cowering in his seat,” the investigative report states. The girl sitting next to the student snickers and other kids start laughing too.

Though teacher’s aide Latilda Sight initially cannot be seen in the recording, her voice can be clearly heard about 15 seconds into the video.

“Shut up! Shut up!” she yells, according to the video.

The student then appears to start crying at his desk.

“And now he starts to cry,” Pennix says in front of the class, according to an investigative transcript. “Let him cry. Let him cry.”

The teacher continues to raise his voice to the student on the video. The teen frequently talks back, but his mumbled responses are mostly inaudible.

After roughly 40 seconds of back-and-forth, the teacher turns to Sight and tells her the teen needs to be removed from the classroom. The aide can be heard using profanity in the recording as she orders the student to leave the classroom.

“Bitch, get out,” she says on the video. “If you don’t give a (expletive), get out!”

As the student gets up from his desk and heads toward the door, Sight “hurries toward him, almost running,” according to the investigative report. She appears to push his face with her fingers on the video, and a security guard can be seen stepping between them.

“Knock me out, folk. Knock me out, folk,” she shouts on the recording as the guard escorts the student from the classroom. Pennix also can be heard yelling as the teen leaves.

“You a dumbass little boy,” Sight shouts as he exits the room, according to the recording. The video ends with Sight picking up her phone and calling the student’s mother, the report states.

Sight told school officials and the student’s mother that the boy threatened her, which prompted her to de-escalate the situation by making physical contact with him. The threats are not heard on the video.

She resigned later that night after the boy’s mother, Stephanie Holmes, sent her the video and questioned the discrepancy between the recording and Sight’s version of events.

Pennix also had sent an email to administrators overnight expressing his regrets about the incident, according to a copy obtained by the Tribune. Records show his apology was sent after Holmes shared the video with Sight.

The boy’s mother went to the school the next morning to report the incident. When she arrived, administrators told her that they had already accepted Sight’s resignation and placed Pennix on leave.

The school fired Pennix in January 2023 after its internal investigation, records show. His termination letter, which the Tribune obtained through an open records request, states that he violated campus policies that required him to exercise “good judgment, honesty and integrity.”

Pennix could not be reached for comment. He is now listed as part of the special education team at another Chicago-area school.

Sight was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery for physically touching the student during the altercation. She pleaded guilty in May, when she received probation and was ordered to attend anger management.

She told the Tribune in January that she is no longer teaching and is trying to move on with her life. She said she loved the student and that his mother knew how she felt about the boy in her heart.

The student continues to attend the charter school. His mother told the Tribune he is seeing a counselor and continues to struggle with his emotions.

Holmes filed a federal lawsuit against the school in December, accusing the University of Chicago’s charter system of negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention of employees.

“When I saw the video, I felt powerless to protect my son,” Holmes said in January. “But maybe speaking up will help someone else’s child.”