Former East St. Louis preschool worker admits to making students stand naked in closet

Derik Holtmann/dholtmann@bnd.com

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 in St. Clair County Circuit Court to one misdemeanor and four felonies, including aggravated battery and unlawful restraint.

Shavonda L. Willis, 44, of Fairview Heights, accepted a plea agreement on Friday, 10 days before her jury trial was set to begin.

Mary M. Agbehia, 29, of South Holland near Chicago, was the other woman who worked for the federally funded Head Start program operated by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis. She lived in Edwardsville at the time.

Agbehia pleaded guilty to five felonies in July, three days before her trial was set to begin.

Willis originally had been charged with 10 counts, including:

  • 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 remove their clothing and stand in a closet.

  • One count of failure to report child abuse or neglect, a Class A misdemeanor.

Willis pleaded guilty on Friday to three counts of unlawful restraint, one count of aggravated battery and the misdemeanor, according to Chris Allen, spokesman for the St. Clair County state’s attorney’s office. The other five charges were dismissed.

“The case is currently set for sentencing on April 19,” Allen said.

Willis couldn’t be reached Monday. Timothy Hunsaker, the St. Louis attorney who’s representing her, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

SIUE and Head Start representatives declined to comment.

Class 4 felonies can result in one to three years in prison. Class 3 felonies can result in two to five years.

Agbehia originally had been charged with eight counts, including:

  • Two counts of aggravated battery, a Class 3 felony, related to allegations that she took off a boy’s shirt and a girl’s clothing.

  • Five counts of unlawful restraint, a Class 4 felony, related to allegations that she ordered children to remove their clothing and stand in a closet or hold hands in the air for an extended period.

  • One count of failure to report child abuse or neglect, a Class A misdemeanor.

Agbehia pleaded guilty in July to two counts of aggravated battery and three counts of unlawful restraint, according to court records. The other three charges were dismissed.

Judge Zina Cruse sentenced Agbehia in September to one year in prison and 24 months of probation.

Agbehia had to register as a violent offender against youths for 10 years. She can’t have any contact with the victimized preschool students or be in a profession involving children under 12 years old.

Agbehia entered Logan Correctional Center on Oct. 1, 2021, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections website. She was released on Jan. 7 from the facility, north of Springfield, which houses women inmates.

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,” Chief 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 backgrounds and criminal records of Agbehia and Willis that were checked as part of the university’s screening and hiring process.

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