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updated: 4/23/2012 1:19 PM

SHS receives criticism, praise for drug investigation

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  • Stevenson High School officials and Lincolnshire police used confiscated cellphones to investigate drug sales at the school. The Daily Herald has obtained 12 emails concerning the investigation.

       Stevenson High School officials and Lincolnshire police used confiscated cellphones to investigate drug sales at the school. The Daily Herald has obtained 12 emails concerning the investigation.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Jim Conrey

      Jim Conrey

  • Video: News report on drug case

 
 

Top Stevenson High School officials were criticized by some parents for their public silence during a high-profile campus drug investigation this winter, a Daily Herald review of emails about the matter shows.

"I am not pleased with the lack of communication surrounding this matter," someone wrote in an anonymous email to Principal John Carter. "It is unfortunate that parents need to get any information from the 5:00 news."


The community's reaction to the two-month investigation at the Lincolnshire school wasn't all negative, however. Some people sent emails praising educators for trying to tackle student drug abuse.

"As a very concerned parent of 2 kids attending Stevenson, I just wanted to tell you what a great job you're doing fighting drugs/dealings/improper behavior in school," Simona Golub said in an email to Superintendent Eric Twadell.

Looking back, Stevenson High spokesman Jim Conrey, who was the public voice of the school during the investigation, said administrators weren't concerned about community praise or criticism at the time.

"Our job is to educate students and make sure they're safe," Conrey told the Daily Herald in an email this week. "This isn't a popularity contest."

Two teens charged

Two students were charged in juvenile court in connection with the investigation, which ran from December through mid-February and involved school officials and Lincolnshire police.

Additionally, unspecified disciplinary action was taken against an undisclosed number of students found to be involved with drug sales or purchases, officials said.

The investigation focused on more than 1,000 text messages students sent to each other. That approach garnered media attention and criticism from some students and parents.

So did the school administration and board's virtual silence on the matter.

Conrey was the only official who spoke publicly about the investigation until it was nearly over. In the process, he declined to answer many questions, citing the investigation and the need for student confidentiality.

The Daily Herald obtained the emails in March, a few weeks after the inquiry concluded. Emails to or from government employees and elected officials are considered public record under Illinois' Freedom of Information Act.

The 12 documents provided to the Daily Herald by District 125 officials were just a portion of the hundreds of emails Stevenson officials exchanged about the investigation.

Most of the emails pertaining to the case weren't provided to the newspaper because they contained private conversations between Stevenson officials and their attorneys, "personally identifiable information" about students and other information that made the documents exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, said Teri E. Engler, an attorney with the firm representing the district.

"It was clear from early on that there would be an extensive amount of very sensitive student-specific information being addressed, so the district took great care to protect student confidentiality rights when communicating about this matter from the get-go," Engler told the Daily Herald.

Critical emails

Several of the emails obtained by the newspaper were critical of the administration's handling of the matter.

"I certainly do not condone drug use by students or anyone, but it appears that your current witch hunt for drug related text messages is way out of control," Lincolnshire resident Harry Goldsholl said in one email.

Resident Nancy Schmelkin said it was frustrating to watch the news reports "without seeing the leaders of the school out in front of the discussion."

"At a time when many of the students need to see their superintendent, principal and teachers stand up and acknowledge a problem and actions to address it, they have heard confusing comments or simply silence," she wrote in an email to Twadell and Carter.

Schmelkin also urged officials to talk to parents about the investigation and the issue of drugs on campus.

"We need to hear specifically what will be added to your action plans going forward and what will be changed from the actions you have taken in the past," she wrote.

A parent named Alan Davidove was upset he learned about the investigation through the media.

"While I wholeheartedly support the intent, the lack of information available to both parents and students is appalling," Davidove wrote.

When asked about the way information was released to the public and the media, Conrey said officials followed their lawyers' advice.

"Their advice was to keep as much information as confidential as possible, and to avoid doing or saying anything that might impede the investigation," Conrey said. "We also felt that, given the sensitive nature of the situation, most communication needed to take place face to face, or at least on the phone."

Some backed school

Parent Simona Golub was among those who sent supportive emails to district officials during the investigation.

"Drug and alcohol abuse should be (dealt) with and kids need to learn a lesson," Golub wrote. "So again, continue doing a wonderful job."

Gerald McCulloh backed the administration's approach, too.

"Kudos to you and the administration at Stevenson High School," McCulloh said in an email to Conrey. "Thank you for doing the right thing."

Conrey said he wasn't surprised by the public mixed reaction.

"Any time a school makes a decision, there will be people who agree or disagree with it," he said. "We didn't receive enough emails to draw any conclusions one way or another but based on person-to-person feedback, we think the public supported our actions."

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