Every two years, Springfield teachers elect a union president. This year, that election was a squeaker. With close to 1,500 teachers voting, a new president was elected by a narrow, nine-vote margin.
There’s no way to know how many of those teachers were aware that — less than a year earlier — the teacher they elected as their leader had appeared before the Springfield School Board to defend himself against allegations that he had put a 7th-grader in a chokehold.
Aaron Graves is a middle school teacher with 20 years of classroom experience. He also happens to be an officer in the Illinois Army National Guard. As the newly-elected president of Springfield Education Association, he holds a powerful position: representing teachers in negotiations, and setting priorities for which issues get pressed or ignored.
Graves campaigned with a clear agenda, listing “safer and more orderly schools” as his number one goal. In social media posts, he urged teachers to “take back your loosely-controlled schools,” and lamented the lack of “meaningful consequences for verbal and physical aggressive acts.”
But in June 2017, he appeared before the school board to protest the consequences of his own physical act.
“I want it understood that although my actions, as viewed by the district, seem egregious enough to dock me five weeks of pay and serve me a notice to remedy — a formal notice that I can be fired for any assumed misconduct in the future — I did not harm any student nor neglect or abuse any student, nor have I ever,” Graves told the board.
Without going into detail, he told the board and the audience that his actions were meant to save students from possibly falling out of school bus.
The incident occurred in December 2016, during the final few miles of a day-long field trip to a Bloomington museum. Students were getting rowdy, and an alarm went off, signaling that someone had bumped an emergency exit latch.
In a lengthy interview at the SEA offices, Graves described what happened.
”So the alarm goes off for the first time. The bus driver asks me to go back to check. I go back to the back of the bus. Can’t figure it out,” he says.
He returned to his seat at the front of the bus, and the alarm went off again. This drill happened two or three times, in quick succession, with Graves walking to the back, then returning to his seat.
”At this point, the kids are becoming more chaotic,” he says. “There’s a group of boys in the middle of the bus that won’t sit down. I ask them to sit down. All of them did, except for Isaiah.”
Isaiah Evans was 12 years old at the time.
”So, I … tugged on his shirt ... and asked him to sit in his seat. And he uses some expletives and, uh, ‘Get your expletive off me.’ So I asked him to go to the front of the bus,” Graves says. “He wouldn’t go to the front of the bus, so I reach in to assist him, and, you know, we get in a tussle.”
He describes a complicated scenario that involves Isaiah resisting, then jumping and flailing, before Graves managed to take control.
“And I just pull him back two seats and set him in a seat,” Graves says.
Isaiah is 14 now, and a freshman at Springfield High School. His body is bigger — and his voice is much deeper — than it was when he went on this field trip in 7th grade. But here’s his memory of this incident:
“The alarm started going off, and everyone started looking around trying to see who pulled it,” he says. “And I stood up and looked over the seat, and I was like, ‘Who pulled the alarm?’ And then he (Graves) came up from behind me, and he grabbed my hoodie and pulled me in my seat, and I told him to get off me. And I pushed him off me. Then he told me to go to the front of the bus. And then he pushed me, and I stumbled. And then he put me in a headlock and dragged me to the back of the bus, and threw me in the seat and was on top of me, pushing me.”
I asked Isaiah if he had used bad language toward Graves.
“Yeah,” Isaiah says. “I told him to get his ass off me.”
Obviously, the teacher and the student both tell this episode from their own perspective. More objective renditions can be found in handwritten statements collected from eight other students who were on the bus. Most of those accounts say Isaiah behaved disrespectfully by mimicking the bus driver, and each student mentions that Isaiah used the word “ass.” But those same accounts say Graves “picked Isaiah up by what seemed to be his collar”; “yanked him up by his hood”; and “picked him up in a chokehold and threw him into a seat.”
Graves denies that.
“There was no arm ever around his neck,” he says. “So I was pulling him out, and then when it went haywire, I used a CPI hold that, you know, I had one arm around his waist and I had one, you know, one arm … up to his shoulder.”
Isaiah’s mom, Daria Evans, isn’t buying Graves’ account. Not only has she seen the video of the incident, recorded by the school bus security camera; she also works with special needs teenagers.
“They say he was using CPI — Crisis Prevention Intervention — but I’ve been trained in all that,” Evans says. “And you do not put your hands on a student unless they are going to harm themselves or others. In CPI, they don’t train you to put your arm around their neck. So I don’t even so how that was justified.”
Graves says he just did what was necessary to protect the safety of other students. But from his vantage point, sitting at the front of the bus, he couldn’t know for sure which kid was the culprit.
“You assume the kid who is, you know, refusing to sit down, who is near one of the alarms, who is mocking the bus driver, I mean, you just assume that this is the person setting off the alarm,” Graves says.
This scuffle wasn’t the first conflict between Graves and Isaiah that day. Isaiah says that, throughout the field trip, the two teachers focused on him, his cousin and two friends, “trying to get us all in trouble.”
Like when they stopped for lunch, at McDonalds, a girl thought Isaiah and his friends were laughing at an unflattering Snapchat picture of her, which Isaiah denies. But Graves took the four boys outside, and lined them up against the wall. Also, at some point, Isaiah became boisterous on the bus, and Graves moved him briefly to sit at the front.
But if students were misbehaving, why did Graves and the other teacher supervising the trip remain sitting together at the front of the bus?
“I don’t know,” Graves says. “I could have been sitting at the back of the bus I suppose. I don’t think we were being neglectful by sitting in the front of the bus, where you can turn around and see kids’ behavior.”
But in this particular incident, it might have made a significant difference. If teachers had been sitting at the back of the bus, they might have realized that Isaiah had nothing to do with setting off the alarm. All parties who have reviewed the video agree that the alarm was triggered by girls jumping across the aisle and bumping the back door of the bus.
In the few minutes that elapsed between the scuffle and the time the bus pulled into Grant Middle School parking lot, Graves realized he had to call Isaiah’s parents.
Daria Evans was at work when she got the call.
“So Aaron Graves got on the phone, and he explained to me that he grabbed Isaiah by his clothes,” she says. “He said because he thought that Isaiah was setting off an alarm. But he said that it was a misunderstanding. He said ‘I grabbed him by his clothes…’ And I said ‘You did what?”
Neither the school district nor the Springfield Police Department will release the bus video, citing student privacy laws. SPD Detective Michael Flynn, who reviewed the tape, wrote a report saying Graves “overreacted,” and “acted inappropriately,” but the Grand Jury voted not to charge him with a crime.
Still, Daria Evans says this incident traumatized Isaiah.
“His appetite decreased, and he eats like a horse,” she says. “He kept waking me up, saying he was having nightmares.”
She got sleep medication and counseling for her son, and physical therapy for his neck. Isaiah elected to finish 7th grade at a different school, and Springfield District 186 provided transportation.
“I didn’t feel comfortable at Grant, so I switched over to Franklin,” he says. “It was a new school, a lot of new faces, but I made friends there after a while.”
Meanwhile, as the case was being investigated, Graves says he contacted several media outlets seeking publicity for his plight, as a teacher on extended paid leave. He doesn’t believe he hurt Isaiah.
“I’ve worked with a lot of kids for a lot of years. And I don’t believe the actions that took place that day would’ve caused such trauma in a kid,” he says.
Graves ultimately lost just three days of pay. He is no longer directly involved with kids. Thanks to his new position as union president, he will spend at least the next two years working mainly with Springfield teachers.
The other teacher on the field trip, Angie Meneghetti, was elected vice-president of the union.
UPDATE: Documents obtained after this story aired via the Freedom of Information Act show that Springfield District 186 school board concluded that Graves had "unprovoked and aggressive physical contact" with Isaiah Evans; that Graves "inappropriately lost his temper" and "intimidated a District student."
About a month after being elected SEA president, Graves signed a settlement with District 186 reducing his punishment to three days without pay. The district placed him on Notice of Remediation for the 2018-2019 school year, promising that the remediation would be wiped off his record if he finished the year with no further incidents. That expungement is practically guaranteed since, as union president, Graves is no longer in the classroom.