Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon Wednesday said “education and not prosecution” was the best route to follow after West Aurora District 129 officials failed to report suspected sexual abuse by a former high school band director in summer 2010.
McMahon’s office and the school district signed a five-year agreement for the district to train all current and future employees about the responsibilities of mandated reporters to contact police or the state’s Department of Children and Family Services if there is a “reasonable suspicion” of abuse.
In the agreement, McMahon’s office created its own pretrial diversion program of sorts for the district, agreeing not to prosecute certain individuals for up to five years if the program is followed.
“My goal, first and foremost, is to ensure the safety of the children,” McMahon said. “This agreement that we’ve created today accomplishes more than we would have accomplished with criminal charges.”
Failure to report suspected abuse under the state’s Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act is a misdemeanor with a top punishment of 364 days in jail. It is unlikely anyone would have spent significant time behind bars, if any, had criminal charges been filed.
McMahon said his office conducted a 10-month investigation and believes his office has enough evidence to prosecute up to 10 people, whom he declined to name. In the end, he felt the program was the best step and that it will put other districts on notice.
“I wanted a program that will essentially make this reporting and training part of the culture of this school district,” he said.
Former longtime West Aurora High School band director Stephen Orland was charged in summer 2011 with having sex with two of his female students. He was fired, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison in spring 2012.
The case never went to trial. Prosecutors said Orland and the victims exchanged more than 47,000 text messages, that he sent the girls cards and letters, that they had liaisons in hotel rooms while on a band trip to Peoria, and that on July 6, 2010, a janitor found Orland and another girl in a secluded band closet hugging a blonde-haired student.
As the janitor approached, Orland ran away. The janitor told his supervisor, and the complaint eventually reached District 129 Superintendent James Rydland, who had a meeting with Orland and then prohibited him from being alone with any female student or risk termination, according to court records.
One of the victims in the case filed a lawsuit in late 2012 against Rydland and former West Aurora Principal Dan Bridges, who is now superintendent at Naperville Community School District 203. In the suit, the girl argues that Rydland, Bridges and other officials failed to contact DCFS and otherwise turned a blind eye to Orland’s inappropriate behavior.
The civil case is next due in court June 20. Craig Brown, who is representing the girl in that case, said he was pleased McMahon’s investigation was now completed.
“Now that Mr. McMahon has made a decision, it will allow me to take depositions of at least 10 of these people who were aware of the actions of Orland and did nothing to protect the girls at the school,” Brown said. “That’s on the school district. They’re the ones who should be responsible for training employees and they didn’t do it. Had mistakes not been made, my client wouldn’t be in counseling right now.”
McMahon said West Aurora’s investigation after the janitor told of the July 6 incident was well intended, but did not follow the law.
“I do not believe there was a cover-up,” McMahon said. “I do believe there was reasonable suspicion of what the janitor saw that day and that information should have been forwarded to DCFS. I think reasonable suspicion is a low threshold.”
Under state law, mandated reporters include basically everyone in a school setting, from teachers and principals to nurses and custodians. Other mandated reporters under state law include doctors, police, firefighters, dentists and more.
DCFS spokesman Dave Clarkin said the agency applauded McMahon for his actions.
“Violations of the Mandated Reporter Act are prevalent, particularly in suburban Chicago. Illinois should not wait for another tragic failure but take action to prevent the next tragedy,” Clarkin said.
In the agreement, District 129 “does not concede guilt or liability for an alleged violation” of the reporting law.
Officials from District 129 released a statement saying the district had worked in the past year to enact new and refined safety initiatives. This spring, some 1,600 employees and people affiliated with the district went through online training sessions offered by DCFS.
“As the district moves forward, the Board (of Education) will remain dedicated to ensuring that child safety remains a top priority in District 129,” read part of the statement.
The janitor involved in the July 2010 incident, Leon Smith, attended Wednesday’s news conference and gave his own take on the situation. Smith, a 29-year employee who took early retirement a couple months after the July 2010 incident, said he believes Rydland and Bridges should be out of education altogether.
“I did catch (Orland) there. He took off running,” said Smith, who said Orland was “all up on” the girl as she was against a wall. “I think they (Rydland and Bridges) should be charged or fired. I think Dr. Rydland protected him (Orland) because they were really good friends.”
Smith said he “guessed” Orland must have been kissing the girl and that school officials had told him in the past to tell them first if any suspected abuse or suspicious behavior occurred on school grounds.
Mike Chapin, spokesman for District 129, said neither Rydland nor the district would have any additional comment.
Harry Smith, who was Bridge’s attorney while McMahon’s office investigated, said Bridges took the initiative to revamp mandated reporter training in District 203 after he was hired there.
“Certainly, Leon (the janitor) is entitled to his opinion of the events,” said Harry Smith. “In the end, (McMahons’s office) saw fit to enter into an agreement with the district. I don’t think any one person is to blame. There were a lot of factors involved.”
McMahon said one difficulty for mandated reporters is that “reasonable suspicion” does not have a legal definition.
“I think ‘reasonable suspicion’ is vague. I don’t think the duties of a mandated reporter are,” McMahon said. “I think it should be a tougher penalty. I think people would take it more seriously if it was a felony offense.”
Kane prosecutors urged anyone who suspects child abuse to call the DCFS hotline at (800) 252-2873 or (800) 25-ABUSE. For more information and tips to spot abuse, visit DCFS.illinois.gov.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.