O'FALLON, Ill. — A school board member here accused of making Islamophobic comments and having a racist motive for opposing a children's book remained defiant Monday night as dozens again packed a school board meeting to demand he step down.
A number of teachers unions and civil rights advocacy groups have joined the call for Steve Springer to resign since parents and teachers first confronted him at an O'Fallon District 90 school board meeting on May 15. The other six school board members have publicly condemned Springer's comments.
Muslim students in the school district have become ashamed of their identity because of Springer's comments, said Kholoud Almofleh, 47, who teaches Sunday school at the Belleville Mosque and Islamic Education Center.
"People like Mr. Springer want our Muslim students to be invisible and be stressed all the time and not be proud of who they are," said Almofleh, a program aide at Delores Moye Elementary School who has a child and two grandchildren in the district and was among several people who spoke during 90 minutes of comments about Springer.
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Almofleh said she invited Springer to the mosque but he did not respond. She read a section from the Quran about God telling mankind that people were created in different but equal groups to know and love one another.
"A board member should represent all students regardless of color or faith, and if Mr. Springer is too intimidated by Muhammed's faith, he shouldn't be in this position," Almofleh said.
Springer has said his comments and opposition to the library event where the children's book was featured were misconstrued.
Springer responded to the criticism in a short speech Monday night. He said his comments were not attacking any student but were pointing out the board needed to establish a policy for accommodating students' individual needs.
"There's no way in hell I'm going to resign from this board," he told the crowd, some of whom he mentioned by name and accused of bullying and harassing him. He said they "intimidated" the other school board members but that he would not be moved.
The board took no public action regarding Springer at Monday's meeting. The group's president has said members are elected by the public and not subject to ouster by other members.
A three-term member of the board, Springer has publicly criticized the local library for holding a reading of a children's book about civil rights and social activism. He said the event "provided a platform for social indoctrination" and that the children were being "set up."
The book in question, "Justice Makes a Difference: The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire," follows a young girl named Justice who learns about historic figures like Charles Hamilton Houston, Paul Robeson, and Ida B. Wells in a conversation with her grandma.
Hundreds of parents and students took to the podium May 15 at Fulton Jr. High School to question why Springer would oppose a book that teaches children about making a difference in the world. Toward the end of the meeting, a parent read aloud emails Springer wrote to other board members in 2016 after learning that the school district was allowing a transgender student to use a nurse's office for restroom breaks and to change clothes after gym class.
"It seems you have decided to change the God-given biological makeup of this student without input from a court, the (board of education) or God. The child is a girl. She needs to be referred to as a girl. I am sad she is having such problems and is confused. But confused is the status, and confusion is not a reason for the district to stand on it's head!" he said in an email.
Springer asked the board to "discuss/address what needs to be done for/with 'transgender' students in this case and in the future. A child with serious 'confusion' issues needs professional assistance, and not at taxpayer expense!"
Springer continued: "Next up?? Yes, next will be a place for Mohamed to wash his little feet and face Mecca three times during the school day."
The Missouri chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, Illinois Education Association, Equality Illinois, Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Belleville Mosque and Islamic Education Center joined parents in demanding Springer's resignation.
Representatives of the organizations were among the crowd Monday at Fulton Jr. High School.
Several of the speakers said that Springer's comments showed he was not committed to giving students equal treatment and respect.
They said accommodations made for the transgender student were simple gestures that went a long way and questioned why Springer would oppose them.
Refusing to acknowledge the students' self-identified gender causes them mental distress, said Jameson-Michael Hand, of Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois.
"My question to you is why would you put a child's safety at risk?" said Hand, a transgender man.
Cameron James "CJ" Casconi said Springer needed to separate his personal beliefs from his role as a board member or resign.
"You're entitled to your personal beliefs," Casconi, a transgender man, said in response to critics who said Springer's comments constituted "free speech."
"What you're not entitled to is using your position on the board to discriminate and bully kids while furthering your political and religious agenda."
Springer's daughter, Cory Hollerbach, was among a handful of people who spoke out on his behalf. Like Springer, they alleged that his comments have been misconstrued and he is being unfairly targeted.
"I look at you all here and at the last meeting and I see the biggest bullies," Hollerbach said.
But fellow board member Mary Baskett said she was bothered by Springer's anger and attacks on those challenging him.
"I challenge you and call on you to try to be neutral, instead of attacking back, to show people you are not who they say you are," Baskett said.