Using 'a moment of hate to do better,' York High School students push for change

Before turning the focus of Tuesday's school board meeting to a planned celebration of student successes, Elmhurst Unit District 205 board President Kara Caforio took time to address a video that appeared to show the bullying of a special needs student at York High School.

“We are deeply disturbed and heartbroken by what was seen in the video that was shared on social media of an incident last week in our high school's bathroom involving a student with a disability,” Caforio said at the start of the meeting. “There is no place for this behavior or treatment of students with a disability in our schools.”

A video of Thursday's altercation shows a group of students laughing after a student with special needs was pushed and fell to the ground. The student then retreats to a bathroom stall.

While the video has drawn outrage from students and community leaders, Caforio said the support given and action taken in the days since the incident have been encouraging. A student petition on Tuesday had more than 8,000 signatures in support of disciplinary action, a safe learning environment and increased education on empathy and bullying.

“To the wider Elmhurst community ... while one incident hurts, and it hurts deeply, the outpouring of compassion in action from our student body at York High School has been nothing short of amazing,” Caforio said, as she choked back emotion. “We are so proud of our students for their outrage over this situation and their adamant and immediate response to make it clear to everyone that the actions of this small group do not represent the entire York student body.”

A news release from the Elmhurst Police Department issued Tuesday afternoon noted police reviewed footage from two cellphones of the incident that showed five students, including the student with special needs, “willfully engaging in physical contact while other students observed.”

Police said the student with special needs is a member of the high school's wrestling team and “was engaged in wrestling behavior” with the four students, two of which are the student's teammates.

“In the video recording, a student who is not on the wrestling team appears to have pushed the student with special needs after physical contact was made,” the release states.

While respecting the privacy of the students involved, Caforio indicated the district has taken steps to address the situation.

“The administrative team has addressed the behaviors from last week's video and continues to be dedicated to the safety and well-being of all our students,” she said.

She added that police offered counseling services to all the students involved and that the family of the student with special needs agreed that the situation would be best handled through the district's disciplinary process and declined further police investigation. The Elmhurst Police Department news release also noted no students were physically harmed as a result of the incident.

DuPage County Board Chair Deb Conroy used her first meeting as county board chair Tuesday to decry the incident.

“Inclusivity and equity are very important in the county ... and I firmly believe we need to call out bullies; every elected official has the responsibility to call out bullies,” Conroy said.

During the meeting, she read a letter from a District 205 parent who supported a planned student walkout Friday, but urged students to think about their actions when they return to class.

“Walking out might make a statement, but what makes a difference is what you do when you walk back in,” Conroy read from the parent's letter.

A handful of parents and a student told board members Thursday's incident is not an isolated situation and urged board members to do more to address the issue.

“The York student body who immediately organized the petition and Friday's event know better,” said Elna Cutri, who has three District 205 students. “They know there are scores of incidents where students with disabilities are bullied and there is no clear repercussion against those who did it.”

York High School Senior Dominic Begora, whose younger sister is a student with special needs, asked the board to increase education, awareness for students and training for staff. The senior member of the high school's football and wrestling teams, also said it was important to use Thursday's incident to move forward in a positive manner.

“It's important to use this moment of hate to do better,” he said.

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