District 203 school board backs superintendent
New Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges appears to have most school board members' support as Kane County authorities investigate whether he and other West Aurora school employees illegally failed to report concerns of inappropriate behavior between a teacher and student.
At least two board members, however, say they have questions about how Bridges handled accusations of sexual abuse lodged by a custodian who said he saw suspicious activity between a former West Aurora High School band director and a female student when Bridges was principal.
Bridges was named superintendent of District 203 earlier this month.
School board President Mike Jaensch, who said he stands firmly behind Bridges, said it might be time for the district to clarify its policies for reporting concerns about possible abuse. But a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said the law is clear on the matter: any school employee who suspects abuse involving a child is required to report it to authorities.
The controversy arose recently when the former custodian broke his silence about what he says he saw in a band storage room in July 2010.
The alleged encounter took place about 10 months before the teacher, Steve Orland, pleaded guilty to abusing two other high school girls. Orland was sentenced in March to 12 years in prison.
In his role as principal, Bridges conducted an investigation and took handwritten notes during an interview with custodian Leon Smith that indicated the janitor said he heard giggling coming from a small band room. When he approached, he saw Orland "up close" to a girl and then Orland "took off running."
Bridges forwarded his finding to West Aurora Unit District 129 Superintendent James Rydland, who on advice of counsel did not contact authorities, according to the district's website.
Officials with DCFS did not learn about the complaint until the janitor came forward to a TV station and chastised the West Aurora district for not reporting the case to the agency's child abuse hotline. The case has been turned over to the Kane County state's attorney's office.
Both the Naperville and Aurora districts have a similar policy, derived from the state's Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, that states, among other things, "Any district employee who suspects or receives knowledge that a student may be an abused or neglected child shall immediately report such a case to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on its Child Abuse Hotline. The employee shall also promptly notify the superintendent or building principal that a report has been made."
In February, less than a month before Orland was sentenced, District 129 beefed up its policy to state, "If a report or allegation of abuse relates to an employee of the district the superintendent or designee shall, in addition to a report to DCFS, immediately report the allegation to the appropriate law enforcement agency, the board of education, and the parent/guardian of the student."
Jaensch said District 203 may have to revisit its policy as well.
"You almost can't be too cautious these days," he said. "If we need to also make our policy more clear that we need to always think about students first, we'll do that."
Board member Terry Fielden agreed and said he is concerned that every level of district employee may not know their responsibilities.
"If that's the case, maybe strengthening our board policy is worth another board discussion so we get it right," he said.
DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe, however, warned against "beefing up policy and mistaking that for law."
"You could have the best written policy around and that still will not, does not, dictate what is legal and what is not," Marlowe said. "And the law is that you, as a school district employee and mandated reporter, are required to call us with any suspicions of child abuse."
Whether Bridges and others in West Aurora met that requirement remains to be seen, but Naperville board members say they have his back.
"I'm really comfortable with Dan running this district," said Susan Crotty. "When you don't have every single piece of evidence (concerning possible abuse), you have to be careful about what you go around reporting."
"That is not a determination for the school district to make. Their responsibility is to call whenever there is a reason to suspect abuse or neglect," he said. "A school district is not allowed to make their own determination whether abuse or neglect occurred."
Board member Suzyn Price echoed Crotty and Jaensch's statements.
"Dan has been very transparent with us about the whole situation from the very beginning and I support Dan fully," she said.
Board members Jim Dennison and Jackie Romberg were unavailable Wednesday, but Fielden and Dave Weeks said they want more information.
"Obviously I hope, as far as Dan is concerned, this is all smoke and no fire, but I do not yet have enough information to form an opinion," Weeks said. "It's heartbreaking if children were abused, and it's heartbreaking if it wasn't handled properly. But I want to be cognizant of the whole situation and be fair to all involved before I open my mouth."
Fielden said he has spoken to Bridges about the situation and remains confident Bridges is the right choice for superintendent.
"I have spoken to him about it, and I was happy with his answers," Fielden said. "But I still have questions centered around information in this case that has found its way into the public domain."
District 203 spokeswoman Susan Rice said Bridges is prohibited from discussing the case and is "cooperating fully with the ongoing investigation."
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