Principal at top CPS school retires amid accusations of hostile environment for teachers, students
An online petition seeking the ouster of Kathleen Hagstrom garnered more than 1,400 signatures.
The longtime principal at a highly rated North Side elementary school has retired amid accusations of hostility toward her staff, a tense environment for students and a history of inappropriate and insensitive comments.
The retirement marked an abrupt end to the storied career of Dr. Kathleen Hagstrom, who served as principal at Walt Disney Magnet Elementary School in Buena Park for decades.
Allegations against Hagstrom, 75, first surfaced publicly last week in an online petition that called for her removal and that has since garnered more than 1,400 signatures.
The petition detailed alleged instances of mistreatment that rose to the levels of “discrimination, retaliation, bullying and unfair labor practices,” and the “mental anguish” they caused.
The creator of the petition couldn’t be reached for comment, and some of the specific incidents mentioned could not be verified. But in interviews, some staff and students claimed there was an uncomfortable and sometimes hostile work and learning environment at the school —even as Hagstrom maintains some strong supporters.
“It’s basically like if Donald Trump were the principal of a school, but he was doing certain really positive things,” one teacher said.
Hagstrom, whose retirement won’t go into effect for another two weeks, said she was instructed not to comment and directed questions to district officials.
A brief letter from a CPS official Monday addressed to the “Disney community” informed parents, teachers and staff that Hagstrom had retired, but gave no details: “I am writing to inform you that Principal Hagstrom has retired from the district. We thank her for her service and contribution to the Disney community.”
The rest of the letter introduced the school’s interim principal — retired Thorp Scholastic Academy Principal Kathleen Bandolik — and finished with a commitment that “your child’s best interests will remain the central focus of decisions made at Disney.
“I thank you for your support and will keep you informed on the plans for continuous school improvement and principal selection for the remainder of the year,” read the letter, signed by Chicago Public Schools Network 2 Chief Mauricio Segovia. He added that a meeting would be scheduled “in the coming weeks” to discuss the change.
A CPS spokeswoman forwarded Segovia’s letter when asked whether Hagstrom chose to retire or was forced out.
The spokeswoman added that the district had started investigating unspecified allegations before Hagstrom’s retirement “and will continue to proceed with the investigation to ensure we have a full understanding of the situation and can work to provide supports to any impacted party if the allegations are substantiated.”
Hagstrom’s contract was renewed in July 2017 — she was set to earn $167,417 this year, according to CPS records — and was set to expire at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
The principal had been reprimanded by the school district in March 2016 for “unsatisfactory conduct,” according to a CPS document obtained by the Sun-Times, though it was unclear why. The “warning resolution” against Hagstrom said that she could be dismissed “if said conduct is not corrected immediately.”
Disney, a top-rated Level 1+ elementary school, serves 1,519 Pre-K through 8th grade students. The school has a diverse student population, with 46% black students, 21% Latino students and 17% white students. More than half of the student body comes from low-income families. More than 90 percent of students meet or exceed national benchmarks in reading and math on standardized tests.
The school, however, has “weak” leadership, according to the results of a CPS survey posted on the district’s website. The “5Essentials” survey, administered at CPS by the University of Chicago, showed that about half of teachers and other staff surveyed at Disney last year said they didn’t feel comfortable sharing “feelings, worries, and frustrations with the principal.”
Inside the well-respected school that looks onto Lake Shore Drive, teachers said they were surprised to hear that Disney’s Local School Council meeting scheduled for Monday evening was canceled.
But there was a sense Monday that Hagstrom’s departure was the “best possible outcome for Disney long-term,” and the staff was “relieved to have an answer,” said a teacher at the school who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
That teacher said the issues at the school have been simmering for years, but teachers and students have been afraid to speak up because Hagstrom “runs a tight ship” and created “this culture of fear that she has kind of indoctrinated in everybody.”
“It’s too bad that it’s taken this long for people to start to speak out, but I think people are just fed up and they don’t want to deal with it anymore,” the teacher said.
“She’s a very old-school person, and I don’t think anybody would deny that. And there’s definitely things that she does for this school that are beneficial. She brings in a lot of money to Disney,” the teacher said.
The teacher said some problems involved inappropriate and unprofessional comments — such as allegedly telling teachers “that she thinks that they don’t look very good that day,” or yelling at male teachers for not wearing a tie.
In other incidents, a janitor told the teacher last school year that Hagstrom allegedly yelled at maintenance staff for using a first-floor microwave, telling the janitor that “you people are not allowed to use this microwave.”
In another incident, Hagstrom yelled at the teacher in front of students for not having the students “in a perfectly straight single file line” at school dismissal time, the teacher claimed.
“You just take it and move on because you’re an adult,” the teacher said.
A student who graduated from Disney and is now in high school said that “for the most part, everyone in the school feared her no matter what.”
The student, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed she and a group of students of color worked on a project about racism in 8th grade, and Hagstrom’s “only comment about our presentation was, ‘Sometimes, discrimination can be a good thing.’
That’s “shocking to come from someone who is supposed to be a leader and role model to all students, especially those who are minorities,” the student said.
Principal’s supporters weigh in
Despite the concerns and the number of signatures on the online petition, some parents and staff are still supportive of Hagstrom and believe she brings the right disciplinary style needed to keep the school running smoothly.
Joyce Howse’s daughter, son and now her grandson have all attended Disney. And until recently, Howse worked various jobs at the school — including as a bus assistant and substitute teacher — starting nearly 30 years ago when she first enrolled her son at Disney.
Howse, 62, said outside the school last week that she thought the petition treated Hagstrom unfairly.
“I was upset and another teacher who retired was upset,” Howse said. “Our kids never had any trouble. And I’ve talked to a couple people who still work here, they like working here.”
Howse, who is a black woman, said she had never before seen or heard any concerns of racism.
“She speaks her mind,” Howse said. “That’s what a person is supposed to do. She doesn’t let them lean on her. She makes sure they’re gonna do what they’re supposed to be doing in their classroom.”