A year after the suburban hazing scandal at Maine West High School, the state agency responsible for safeguarding the welfare of children is pushing to educate school districts about the state's "mandated reporter" law and to empower students to speak up about abuse.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recently launched the statewide "You are not alone" campaign to help stop child abuse and neglect. The agency is partnering with regional school superintendents, private school organizations and other agencies to distribute child abuse prevention posters to public and private schools.
What schools should know about mandated reportingŸ A mandated reporter must report suspected instances of child abuse or neglect. Failure to do so is a criminal offense. Simply reporting suspicions to a superior does not satisfy legal requirements.
Ÿ Reports should be made to the DCFS hotline: (800) 25-ABUSE.
Ÿ All school district employees must undergo mandated reporter training. To take the DCFS training online, visit mr.dcfstraining.org.
Ÿ Schools and other organizations can request "You are Not Alone" posters by contacting Jennifer Florent at (217) 524-1970, or Jennifer.Florent@illinois.gov.
Source: Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
"We've reached an estimated 1.5 million students statewide so far. It's an effort to speak directly to the students ... it's also a message for (mandated reporters)," DCFS spokeswoman Karen Hawkins said. "We now have posters in all but five counties statewide. We have distributed almost 10,000 posters statewide -- 8,000 in English and almost 2,000 in Spanish."
According to DCFS statistics, one in five children is abused or neglected before turning 18, and 70 percent of child abuse goes unreported. And children tell an average of seven adults about mistreatment before it is reported to authorities.
The state's Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act requires all school personnel, as well as school board members, to immediately report or cause a report to be made to DCFS whenever they have reasonable cause to believe a student may be abused or neglected.
Hawkins said the poster campaign is not directly in response to the 2012 Maine West soccer hazing scandal but said the Maine West case highlighted the need for greater education of what state law requires of mandated reporters.
"The situation at Maine West certainly put this issue on everyone's radar," she added. "School districts have responded really positively to it."
Knowing the law
Mandated reporters account for roughly two-thirds of the nearly 250,000 calls to DCFS' Child Abuse Hotline each year, and 20 percent of the reports come from schools, according to agency statistics.
Reports by school personnel resulted in nearly 3,000 cases of child abuse identified in 2012.
DCFS for the first time also is tracking calls made by youths reporting abuse.
State law places the responsibility on school districts to train all employees on the mandated reporter law. DCFS offers in-person mandated reporter training to school districts that request it, and districts also can have employees take the training online.
Yet, districts often talk to their employees about it at the beginning of a school year without much reinforcement, advocates say.
Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said the highly publicized case involving West Aurora High School band director Stephen Orland epitomized the failure of school districts to fully comprehend the mandated reporter law.
Orland was sentenced to 12 years in prison in March 2012 after pleading guilty to two felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse for having sexual contact with two female students in a band storage room at the school.
DCFS criticized West Aurora Unit District 129 administrators for not immediately reporting allegations of the encounter between Orland and a female student in 2010, which they had been informed of by a school janitor. The agency admonished West Aurora High School officials and the janitor for not immediately calling DCFS's hotline.
Earlier this year, the state's attorney's office agreed to drop its investigation of whether three district officials failed to report the abuse soon enough in exchange for the district signing a pact to protect students and train all employees on their mandated reporter obligations.
"I saw that case as more of a systematic failure to educate employees and personnel of their legal responsibility," McMahon said. "This issue of abuse in educational environments certainly gained a lot of attention or awareness with the Penn State (scandal). That collectively raised our awareness on a national level."
In June 2012, Pennsylvania State University's longtime former university football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse, dating from 1994 to 2009. He was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and maximum of 60 years in prison for sexually assaulting at least eight underage boys on or near university property.
"It's easy to suggest that doesn't happen in our backyard or in our community," McMahon said, adding that the West Aurora case defies that myth.
At Maine West, "You are not alone" posters are up in hallways. The school is still dealing with the fallout from allegations of hazing of two freshman players by members of the varsity boys soccer team in September 2012, and earlier cases of hazing from 2007, 2008 and the summer of 2012 that came to light afterward.
The Cook County state's attorney's office still is investigating whether to prosecute Maine Township High School District 207 officials on charges involving failure to report allegations of abuse during hazing rituals. Earlier this year, DCFS referred allegations to Cook County prosecutors that one or more school district employees knew of "alleged abuse or neglect as early as 2007" of students and didn't report them to the agency as required by law in a timely manner.
No determination has been made in that investigation, Cook County state's attorney's office spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said.
Knowing and willful violation of reporting requirements is a misdemeanor for a first violation and a felony for a second or subsequent violation. Preventing authorities from discovering abuse or neglect as part of a plan or scheme to protect someone from arrest or prosecution is a felony.
District 207's own independent investigation into the hazing allegations led to the firing of Maine West soccer coaches Michael Divincenzo and Emilio Rodriguez.
Divincenzo, 37, is the only one currently charged in the scandal after charges initially filed against students who were believed to be involved in the hazing were dropped. He is scheduled to face trial Dec. 17 on misdemeanor charges of hazing, battery and failure to report abuse.
No administrators have been reprimanded over the scandal, which did, however, set in motion a series of policy changes at the district to prevent any future problems.
The district now requires every coach and student to sign anti-hazing pledges at the beginning of each new sports season.
Officials also changed a previous policy that called for each school to designate one person to take reports of suspected child abuse. Now, all employees are required to immediately report suspected abuse to DCFS and then inform the superintendent and principals.
The school board also established a new policy prohibiting retaliation against anyone who reports suspected hazing, bullying or harassment.
Anti-hazing focus groups were conducted with students, parents and staff and at the start of the fall sports season, the district brought in the Positive Coaching Alliance to talk about hazing with students, coaches and parents at each school.
"The notion that hazing was somehow part of the cultural fabric at Maine West was never fair or accurate," district spokesman David Beery said. "But these presentations were part of an effort to further establish to students, coaches and parents alike that hazing is not acceptable."
Beery said long before DCFS launched its campaign, the district offered training on mandated reporter requirements during a teacher institute day.
"As classes resumed in August, district and building administrators outlined to all employees specific instructions on steps to be taken in order to report suspected child abuse to DCFS," Beery said.
The district also has set up an online abuse reporting form, and all employees were required to complete an online tutorial on recognizing signs of child abuse and reporting it, he said.
Reluctance to report
But Kane County State's Attorney McMahon said when his office began investigating the West Aurora case, it became clear a lot of people in that district were unaware they were mandated reporters.
"That's alarming to me," he said. "The mandated reporting law is intentionally broad to cover as many people as possible that walk into a school building and have contact with kids. That sparked the idea that we need to really partner with DCFS to get this message out."
McMahon has since spoken to school superintendents in Kane County about mandated reporting laws, emphasizing the protections built into the law for people who do report and the availability of anonymous reporting.
"There are a lot of school personnel who believe, genuinely, that if they report their suspicion to their supervisor that, that relieves them of their legal obligation to report to DCFS. And that is absolutely false," he said.
Part of the problem is people find it hard to talk about abuse.
"People are uncomfortable with the idea that it may be occurring in their community, let alone their school," McMahon said.
"There's a little bit of hesitancy to acknowledge the existence of sexual abuse or hazing, despite the early signs."