February 12, 2014, FOREST PARK || By Michael Romain
Updated: This article was emended on February 13, 2014, to account for several corrections which have been detailed here.
Twenty minutes before the meeting began, the auditorium at the Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) was halfway filled and bustling with the high-pitched giddiness one would expect from a room full of idling cheerleaders. They were here at a February 11, 2014, District 209 board meeting to see what would come of the woman many of the girls described as a second mom.
Launa Mobley, the head cheerleading coach at Proviso East High School, was facing termination. The girls, their parents and the people who know Mrs. Mobley, or “Coach C” or “CC” as she’s variously called, wanted her to stay. What resulted from this conflict was one of the rarest displays of solidarity that her lawyer, Doug Ibendahl, has ever seen.
She Say, She Say
The incident that would ultimately lead to last night’s outcry happened on Saturday, January 18, 2014. The Proviso East boy’s basketball team was hosting the Fenwick Friars of Oak Park. At some point that night, Mrs. Mobley spotted one of her cheerleaders sitting on a bench while the other girls were out on the court. What happened next is in dispute–either it was a benign gesture of competitiveness or an act of abuse in line with a history of culturally insensitive conduct.
The girl, whose specific identity has not been revealed, alleges that Mrs. Mobley punched her in the back, causing her to fall to the hardwood floor. She also alleges that her coach had consistently used culturally insensitive language directed toward her, implying that there may have been more behind that punch than sheer physical force.
Both the coach and her attorney explicitly deny the girl’s claims. The students, parents and community members who rose to Mrs. Mobley’s defense during public comment stand by the coach’s counterclaim that what the accuser calls a punch was nothing more than a firm, but encouraging, shove to join the group on the court; no different from the competitive encouragement one typically sees from coaches in other sports. They also emphasized that any hints toward the possibility that Mrs. Mobley is racially insensitive toward cheerleaders of other races is ungrounded.
The closest objective evidence we could find surrounding the incident is a three minute highlight video of the game posted on YouTube by CN100. The cheerleaders can be seen gathered around a perimeter during the shootarounds at the :45 mark. At the 1:38 mark, Mrs. Mobley is shown sitting on a second level riser, a small boy in a white shirt standing to the right of her. The score box indicates that there’s less than two minutes to go in the first quarter.
The second frame in which Mrs. Mobley appears starts at around the 2:14 mark. The game clock shows 3:42 left in the second quarter. Nothing appears out of the ordinary in either frame. And although there were no girls around Mrs. Mobley and her accuser when the alleged incident occurred, there were several cheerleaders who reported that when they’d seen the girl after the game, she didn’t appear shaken or out of the ordinary.
Indeed, there doesn’t appear to have been any actions taken immediately after the incident that would have been commensurate with the severity of the allegations.
There haven’t been reports of security being called to the scene of the incident. On the following Tuesday, the girl showed up to practice. And several parents of the cheerleaders reported that, for the remainder of the month of January, they didn’t know that anything was awry. Then Thursday, February 6th, came and everything went haywire.
A Messy Process
In the wake of the cheerleader’s allegations, the administration questioned Mrs. Mobley and, in keeping with school procedure, automatically alerted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), whose investigation into the matter appears to be ongoing. Although actual documentation of the agency’s findings has not yet been disclosed, numerous people associated with the coach reported that the agency has not found anything of substance, a claim that Mrs. Mobley herself confirmed. Due to the ongoing nature of the case, she asked not to be quoted on record.
However, she did verify that during that Thursday, February 6th meeting, Proviso East Assistant Principals Anthony Crespo and Kisha Lang informed her that she was suspended; that by 2pm that same day, despite having been informed that she was only suspended, her job was posted on the district’s employment website–effectively signaling her termination; and that by the end of that school day, her cheerleaders had received letters that stated the following:
“To the parents of our cheerleading athletes. The Proviso East Administration regrets to inform you our [sic] Head Cheerleading Coach is no longer at the high school. Our decision is to continue without disruption of games, competitions and any efforts regarding fundraisers. We want to ensure that your child has a positive experience. We are currently searching for the best qualified candidate for the position. In the meantime, Administration will ensure that practices, performances and competitions will continue as scheduled. Should there be any changes, we will alert you as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience as we move forward with this transition.”
Two days later, on February 8th, the girls had a big game at Proviso West High School. However, instead of cheering without a coach, they all decided to boycott. By their collective account, they were given an ultimatum–either cheer or face a range of consequences, including forfeiting the remainder of the season, losing the opportunity to participate in Senior Night and being suspended for ten days.
At some point during the malaise at Proviso West, the girls looked up and saw Mrs. Mobley in the stands. She had come to the game as a fan. When several of the cheerleaders began to approach where she was seated, they were cut off by security guards, who said that, due to the conditions of their coach’s suspension/termination, the girls could not have any contact with her. Mrs. Mobley was also informed that she couldn’t be on the premises and was escorted out of Proviso West by Mr. Crespo.
After their persistent refusal to take the court, the girls said that some of them were herded onto the bus to be taken back to Proviso East, while others stayed behind at West. Natasha Palmer, the mother of a cheerleader, said that her daughter was told that if she didn’t get on the bus, she’d be suspended for ten days. En route to Proviso East, however, the bus turned back around and headed toward Proviso West, where the girls were directed to go into a room to be supervised by Proviso East Principal Tony Valente.
“First, they put the kids on a bus with a security guard, not with someone who was supposed to be over the cheerleaders,” said Jennifer Johnson, another cheerleading parent.
“Second, not all of the cheerleaders were on the bus. By the time they got back to West, they put my daughter in a room with no parent. They were in a room with only a male principal. All females! That should never have happened. That’s the second time that’s happened,” Johnson said.
“The other time, the girls were having practice and Mr. Crespo was the only one supervising them. Just him, a male, no adult females. And he had his camera phone out. There were young ladies practicing in just sports bras. When some of us called him on that, he said, ‘Well, there are cameras everywhere in the school.’ That’s not good enough. If you’re going to discipline teachers for misbehaving, then he needs to be disciplined, too.”
Monica Neese said that her biggest problem with the administration’s handling of the suspension was that she, along with the other parents, were locked out of the process.
“It was no thought in the whole situation and that’s the biggest problem we have. None of us were interviewed,” she said.
By Sunday, February 9th, many members of the Proviso East and Maywood communities were in an uproar.
Good People Standing Up For A Good Person
James “Papa” Brewer, the Proviso East basketball legend and former NBA player, was among those to offer public comment on the matter at the February 11th board meeting.
“I went to [Launa’s] church on Sunday and the esteem [with which] she is held in her church is incredible […] This woman’s character does not fit the punishment nor the situation.”
After referencing the DCFS investigation, Mr. Brewer implored the board to reconsider the administration’s decision.
“We can still get this right,” he said.
Referring to the ultimatum the cheerleaders were given, Robert Jones, a Proviso East alumnus and associate pastor at New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, said, “Kids should not have to make choices like that.”
Tahesha Wells’s 10-year-old daughter is a member of the Proviso East mini Pirettes, over which Mrs. Mobley also serves as head coach.
“I find it appalling that a team was just ended–a team that ranged from the ages of 4 to 12. These are girls who had no knowledge of what was going on,” she said.
Wells also cited, to much applause, what many among the throng of supporters apparently perceive to be the cheerleading team’s regular mistreatment by the administration.
“I’ve personally witnessed [Mrs. Mobley] take girls out of town to a cheerleading competition and…bring trophies back that are taller than me that sit in the office, because the school refuses to display them…in the hallway. There’s a problem there, because it’s not just a reflection of whatever may be the case against her, it’s also a reflection against the girls.”
Ms. Palmer was so incensed at the perceived unfairness that she wrote an Op-Ed letter to the Forest Park Review in October of last year.
“In most schools, the cheerleaders are the heart and soul of the school, but not at East,” she wrote. “We get virtually no support whatsoever […] The school does not contribute to any of the cost, nor do they allow us to do any fundraising. I am a single parent and coming up with these fees year to year has been hard […]”
It was while parents, students, former students and supporters were discussing the cheerleaders’ plights–traveling downstate on broken down yellow buses and staying in bug-infested hotel rooms, while the basketball team traveled coach and slept in “two-star” hotels–that Mrs. Mobley’s treatment was put in the context of a much more systemic complaint emanating from the crowd. The cheerleaders at Proviso East, in the eyes of most of those in attendance, aren’t treated with the respect and appreciation that they believe is their due.
Like Mrs. Mobley, the crowd seemed to suggest, the cheerleaders give and give, but get little in return.
“I’ve witnessed [Mrs. Mobley’s] undying support for these girls,” said Antoinette Grey, a Proviso East alumnus and vocal supporter of the cheerleaders.
“I’ve seen her work tirelessly with alumni to ensure that they have what they need to eat,” she said, referencing the coach’s tendency to finance many of the girl’s needs out of her own pocket–a tendency that was brought up many times.
Cheyenne Pearson, a senior Proviso East cheerleader, talked about her coach through muffled tears–an electrified, church-like chorus of supporters attempting to ease her testimony. Shouts of “Take your time!” and encouraging applause at her back. Her grandfather, former Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore, eventually walked to the podium and stood beside her.
“Coach C has raised me….she’s a big part of me….and to see her cry, to see her hurt, because she knows that we don’t have her anymore….as a coach…and for someone to expect us to cheer and we look over to the side and don’t see her? That’s not right. They should have thought about our feelings….They should’ve asked everybody as a whole what has happened. They should’ve brung our parents in it, so that they could understand what was going on.”
After the public comments, the school board, many members of which were visibly moved, retired to executive session for approximately an hour. When they reappeared, took their seats and called the general meeting back to order, a pungent silence descended on the room.
Board President Daniel Adams announced rather anticlimactically that the board was not terminating Mrs. Mobley and that the District would notify the public of its determination, pending the results of the investigation. There was no word on which specific investigation Mr. Adams was referencing, although in all likelihood it may have been that conducted by DCFS. The administration hasn’t yet responded to our request for comment. As of press time, Mrs. Mobley remains suspended.
But that’s all well and good with Mrs. Mobley’s attorney, Mr. Ibendahl, who thinks that the board’s management of the crisis during the February 11th meeting is to be commended. Mr. Ibendhal said that he’s confident his client will be reinstated, contingent on her complying with the board’s recommendations, the specifics of which he wouldn’t disclose.
“I think we came to a reasonable resolution,” he said, citing he and Mrs. Mobley’s meeting with the board during closed executive session. “It’s never too late for somebody to do the right thing.”
Mr. Ibendahl is confident that any investigations that are ongoing–whether conducted by the school or by DCFS, once complete, will clear his client of any wrongdoing. “There’s nothing there,” he said, briskly dismissing the allegations.
When asked whether Mrs. Mobley’s status as an independent contract employee had an impact on her situation, he carefully explained what would have happened, at minimum, had she been unionized. But he also pointed out that her non-union status doesn’t justify the way she was treated.
“She definitely would’ve had other remedies. For one thing, the union would’ve probably represented her. She wouldn’t have had to get her own lawyer. But she still has a contract. People can’t be fired willy nilly. There have to be legitimate grounds.”
Then Doug Ibendahl switched focus. He wanted to talk about something else—what he believes is the real story hidden by all the malaise.
“I’ve been to a lot of board meetings and what happened there was extremely unusual,” he said. “All those people who came out and stood up for somebody. You know, I think going into that meeting, the board was ready to go ahead and terminate her.”
Mr. Ibendahl said that the dramatic witness provided by the many people in support of Mrs. Mobley–from former cheerleaders to present cheerleaders to church members to parents–may have had an influence on the board’s decision.
“That’s so rare,” he said of the display of solidarity. “It’s just so rare to see people spend the time, come out on a cold night and stand up for a good person. I think it really shows what regular people can do. Good people standing up for another good person. That’s really powerful.” VFP
See more video of the public testimony given at the February 11th board meeting here: