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District 204's silence benefits no one
By Joni Hirsch Blackman | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/6/2009 12:02 AM

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Who does silence serve?

In the time since I sat, stunned, watching the deteriorating Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school board meeting nearly two weeks ago, it seems to me this entire situation begs that one question.

The parents of the Gregory Middle School boys charged with sexually assaulting one of their classmates off school grounds presumably would have preferred silence to the coverage the incident has attracted.

Superintendent Stephen Daeschner finally issued a statement last week via e-mail. But afterward, the Daily Herald said, he "was unavailable according to calls placed to his office and home." He obviously is a fan of silence.

And at the Feb. 23 school board meeting, then-school board President Mark Metzger demanded silence of time-challenged speakers and clapping-to-support-them audience members.

Since then, Metzger probably wishes he'd kept his typing fingers silent. But as far as I'm concerned, his now infamous e-mail mistakenly sent in hurried anger last Friday was but a blip compared with his behavior Feb. 23.

The speakers that night were eloquent critics of silence. In particular was the parent and ER nurse who noted most of the world prefers to keep sexual assault a secret. "If it weren't for the brave actions of these parents, this still would be a secret," she said of the parents of the alleged victim. "But since nothing has been done, what child would come forward now?"

It is understandable that a case such as this necessitates prudence, some acquiescence to legal restrictions. But the silence that came from Indian Prairie officials since the alleged attack on Nov. 11 was deafening. Then, when Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Alan Leis sent an e-mail to his district discussing the fact one of the Gregory assailants had transferred - of his parent's own accord - to a District 203 junior high, the juxtaposition of how to handle a sensitive issue and how not to was dramatic.

Not only did Leis address the situation head on, he took reporters' phone calls, answered their questions and - in a move that would be a matter of course if it did not so clearly illuminate how the situation was not handled in 204 - he invited parents to direct questions or concerns directly to him and provided a phone number and e-mail address.

Meanwhile, back at the District 204 school board meeting, Metzger spent the evening cutting off speakers at the stroke of 3 minutes and reprimanding audience members. The first speaker, the victim's father, spoke with passion but in a completely dignified and appropriate manner about how he felt about the district's perceived lack of action - during and after which he was supported by thunderous applause from the crowd.

Next time, he told the superintendent, don't wait until the school board finds out about such an incident - tell them. Next time, "have the human decency" to meet with the parents immediately.

As he suggested each school board candidate this election would be asked about the handling of his son's case, his time was up and he was cut off by Metzger. Certainly, there is a prescribed limit on public speakers at all governmental meetings. But since there were only a few speakers signed up to talk and it was only about 8:15 p.m. when they began, it wouldn't have hurt to give him the few extra moments it would have taken to say what he had waited so long to say.

Oscar winners speak over the exit music; presidential candidates speak over understanding moderators' protests, but at that meeting, no taxpayer was allowed to speak more than precisely 180 seconds.

Remember, this was a man who said he had been trying to work with the school district for three months. His family's life had been extremely difficult for those months, trying to help his child get through the trauma while trying to get the alleged perpetrators out of his son's immediate day-to-day life.

He wanted, perhaps needed, a few minutes to publicly express his frustration. Imagine trying to shut him up after 180 seconds at 8:15 p.m. with just a half-dozen or so speakers signed up to speak in 3-minute increments after him. He tried to keep talking, but then - in a restrained manner I am certain I wouldn't have been able to muster - accepted Metzger's demands and sat down.

His family's attorney was next. He identified himself as a former school board member in another district. To protest the "horrendous lack of action by this board" he bluntly detailed each act the alleged attackers were accused of. He described how the alleged attack was photographed and sent via cell phone for other classmates to look at.

He, too, tried to continue talking to wrap up his remarks, but Metzger stood his ground. When the crowd supported the lawyer, saying, "Let him finish!" Metzger shouted, "I'll clear the room!" The defining statement of a man favoring silence.

Several speakers then addressed the board, each with obvious anger and disappointment about the past three months.

At the end of the speakers' comments, Metzger began to address the crowd, perhaps in response to the many residents who said things like the last speaker, "Address the issue - say something to show you care! Are you going to do something, or if not, why? When do you plan to address us?"

Metzger told the crowd one of the two accused boys no longer was attending Gregory and the parents of the alleged victim had signed an order allowing the other accused child to stay at Gregory if he stayed 100 feet from the victim at all times.

The victim's father stood to note he had signed the protective order as a last resort, with no other option given to him. The two began to shout at each other and Metzger asked the police officer who sat outside the meeting all evening to escort the father out. The meeting ended on that note.

The crowd remained for a few moments, frozen by what had happened. It was another of many chances that evening Metzger had to address the audience, but didn't.

My lasting impression of the overwhelmingly disappointing meeting was my wholehearted agreement with the mother of the alleged victim who, among her more personal comments about the nightmare she has been living since Nov. 11, said, "I used to stand behind the school district. But I can't stand behind you anymore."

The only response the board truly gave the issue that night was the common-sense suggestion from Curt Bradshaw who supports a victim's rights policy or a board policy change to a new "default response."

"If it were me, my default response would be to move an (alleged) aggressor to a school away from a (alleged) victim to give the victim the best opportunity to recover and thrive," Bradshaw said.

Despite some discussion, the issue was left unresolved and continued.

So instead of a victim's rights policy that sparks an automatic move of alleged aggressors, their alleged victims will continue to suffer. When silence endures, bullying continues and left to continue, can escalate.

This child's parents have chosen to speak out instead of sweeping the allegations involving their son's experience under a rug.

Silence, of course, serves bullies.

• Joni Hirsch Blackman lives on a cul-de-sac in the Gregory Middle School attendance area. Contact her at jonihb@aol.com.