Maine Township High School District 207 school board hopefuls call for more education and training of staff, administration and students on recognizing and preventing hazing after recent scandals at Maine West High School in Des Plaines.
Seven candidates are vying for four, 4-year seats on the District 207 school board April 9. They include, incumbents Eldon Burk and Margaret McGrath, appointed board member Carla Owen, and newcomers Mary Childers, Jin Lee, Jeffrey Spero and Sean Story.
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District 207 serves more than 7,000 students in three schools -- Maine West, and Maine East and South, both in Park Ridge.
Senior members of the Maine West varsity boys soccer team are accused of assaulting and sodomizing underclassmen as part of team initiation rituals. Six Maine West varsity boys soccer players initially were charged with misdemeanor battery on allegations they hazed younger teammates in separate attacks in September, and during a soccer camp last summer. The Cook County state's attorney's office is reviewing the charges and investigating accusations of hazing at Maine West going back to 2007.
District 207 has fired two Maine West soccer coaches, hired an independent investigator to look into the hazing allegations and brought in a consulting firm to lead anti-hazing focus groups at its three schools.
Eldon Burk, 76, a retired educator from Des Plaines who taught for 32 years at District 207, said hazing is a nationwide problem that is finally getting attention with recent high-profile cases at Maine West and other schools across the country.
"Every school person in the United States is looking at how do we keep this from happening to us," he said. "It's going to make a major change in how people look at hazing, how they are going to guard against it, how they are going to be more aware of it, and more active to reporting it, and doing something about it. If something good can come out of something really bad, maybe that's what we have."
Burk said if District 207 teachers and staff weren't aware of their responsibility to report suspected hazing before, they are now. "They are going to be a lot more observant of what goes on in the locker room," he said.
Burk said the school board and administration also will be asking tougher questions when hiring new principals, coaches or a new athletic director.
Mary Childers, a Des Plaines real estate broker and a former Des Plaines alderwoman and substitute teacher at East Maine Elementary District 63, said the district needs to have anti-hazing signage in hallways just as it has signs about drug-free zones. Childers also commended the school board for its sensitivity in handling the hazing matter.
"I have been incredibly impressed with how the board has been so reasoned about this for something so ugly and so terrible," she said. "They have been incredibly respectful and concerned about everyone involved, not only the children that were affected and their families, but the staff that could or could not have done something different."
Childers said with the increased awareness of hazing, educators and school staff have to go above and beyond doing their job.
Jin Lee, 50, of Des Plaines, said the district needs to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on hazing, require mandatory anti-hazing programs for the entire school community, and increase focus on preventive education through workshops and better communication.
"It should be responsibility shared by everyone, the parents, the students, and the teachers and administration," said Lee, director of government relations and business planning and development for Albany Park Community Center in Chicago. "I think the most important thing is preventive education."
Lee, who is of Korean descent and whose two children graduated from Maine schools, said schools in Korea have special classes aimed at teaching respect among students, and between students and teachers.
"This is one program or service that I would like to implement," Lee said. "If we can provide proper respect to students, parents and teachers ... that can definitely prevent not only hazing, but also those shooting incidents (at) different schools."
Margaret McGrath, 54, a Park Ridge attorney who has served on the board since 2009, said the district needs to be proactive and expose traditions and practices that could constitute hazing. She said the hazing at Maine West likely started with something innocuous and escalated over time.
McGrath said while the internal investigation into the matter is not yet completed, "the district moved quickly and decisively" to inform police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services about the allegations that surfaced last September.
She suggested whenever such hazing allegations occur at any school, the district should pull together a committee of staff members from all three schools to investigate the matter.
"You might get a different perspective" with a fresh set of eyes, McGrath said. "Have a committee with at least one person from each school ... it's a lot more open. You want to avoid any claims where people are ignoring issues because they know people."
McGrath favors having more movement of staff members within the district to increase their exposure to new ideas, and not just moving up in the organization having worked at only one school.
Ongoing education about hazing with the stakeholders, including the administration, teachers, coaches, students and parents, is key to prevention, she said.
"They all have to know what it looks like," McGrath said. "They all have to know what to do when they suspect something. It needs to become part of the fabric of the district."
Carla Owen, 50, a Park Ridge attorney appointed to the school board in December, said the hazing issue is the first major crisis she has had to deal with, and it fortified her desire to serve on the board.
"Actions were taken pretty quickly, as part of a deliberative process," Owen said, adding that the administration and board are trying to get to the real root of the problem.
"The problem with hazing is that, a lot of (what) occurs, people don't really recognize as hazing," she said. "It can seem very innocent. And the silver lining to this really painful, difficult situation on many levels is that there is a whole bit of education going on. There is a lot of conversation."
Jeffrey Spero, 44, a Des Plaines certified public accountant with two children enrolled at Maine West, said while the school board and administration have handled the hazing issue well, there has been too much focus on "the grievance and investigation process."
"I felt that we missed an opportunity when the issue was really hot ... to start to engage the students and have them much more involved in the self policing of the environment of their schools," Spero said.
Spero said while the administration and staff must be held accountable, if they are neglectful of hazing or complicit, students need more support and to be empowered to look out for each other.
"Parents, faculty, staff and administrators don't get a pass on this, but if the students don't recognize that it is important, then we're going to continue to have these kinds of things happen," Spero said. "My hope is that, a few years down the road, other schools look at District 207 as leading the way to helping us figure out what needs to be done here. We are well equipped to bring the right kinds of guidance, leadership to the process."
Story, 30, of Park Ridge, chief financial officer and chief operating officer for Chicagoland Beverage Co., could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.
In response to a Daily Herald candidate questionnaire, Story said the school board should work closely with teachers, coaches and administrators to create programs that develop responsible leaders at the student and teacher/coach levels.
"The board can look to develop leadership initiatives for throughout athletic programs that promote positive team building, such as ropes courses, small team outings, and assigning veteran mentors to newcomers," Story said. "It must be everyone's responsibility to prevent hazing, however, the board can work to be proactive in preventive measures through working to develop such programs and initiatives."