In the late 1990s, Meridian Middle School instructor John C. Vastis was so highly regarded that he was among the Chicago-area nominees for the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.
But Vastis' teaching achievements were not the focus of a news conference Thursday afternoon at the Buffalo Grove school in Aptakisic-Tripp Elementary District 102.
Vastis, 51, of Lakemoor, was arrested at his home early Thursday morning on federal child pornography charges. Prosecutors say Vastis was taken into custody by U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents as part of an investigation that began nearly two weeks ago.
Buffalo Grove Police Chief Steven Casstevens said Thursday he's been assured by federal authorities that Vastis did not victimize Meridian Middle School children.
District 102 Superintendent Theresa Dunkin said officials there will fully cooperate with the investigation. She said Vastis, a 19-year district employee who teaches public speaking, was placed on "investigatory leave" after his arrest.
"On a personal note, as the superintendent of the school district, I just want to say how unfortunate this situation is and I'm grateful that our students are all OK," Dunkin said. "While there are no (Meridian) allegations, safety is most important to us."
Buffalo Grove resident Tami Baba, who observed the news conference in the middle school parking lot, said a thorough local investigation should take place to ensure Vastis didn't do anything improper with District 102 pupils.
"That's where I feel it's the responsibility of the school district, just to be sure that all the students that have had him were safe and remain safe," Baba said. "Just to reach out and be sure."
Baba said Vastis taught her children and they spoke well of him.
Notices regarding Vastis' arrest were sent from District 102 to parents, Dunkin said, but the subject was not addressed with students during school Thursday. She said parents have been provided tips on how to approach their children with the news.
"It's really a personal decision by parents what they'd like to tell their children," Dunkin said.
In 1997, Vastis was one of 1,192 Chicago-area elementary school teachers nominated for the Golden Apple. Only 10 teachers receive the award, which this year provided winners a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University and $3,000 cash.
Court documents state Vastis is accused of possessing child pornography and coercing a boy, who was 16 at the time, into producing pornographic images and sending them to him.
According to federal prosecutors, the accusations against Vastis surfaced after a search warrant was executed at the home of the boy, now 17, who was suspected of possessing and distributing child pornography.
The boy then told federal agents he began communicating with Vastis via online video chat services and text messages starting in September 2013, when he was 16. Agents recovered sexually explicit messages between the boy and someone calling himself "Pete," which prosecutors say was an alias used by Vastis.
Vastis is in federal custody awaiting a bond hearing, prosecutors said. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Casstevens said a tip line has been established for the Vastis case. Callers may leave tips, with their names or anonymously, at (866) 347-2423, he said.
• Staff writer Jake Griffin contributed to this story