Daily Herald
Changing law best way to deal with Dist. 204's challenge
By Joni Hirsch Blackman | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 2/16/2009 12:32 AM

This is not the column I planned to write.

No, after watching video online and reading news accounts of my middle school community eloquently and emotionally addressing the Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school board last week, I was proud.

I couldn't wait to join them in print and condemn the school district for not removing two boys from Gregory Middle School who had been criminally charged with sexually assaulting a third Gregory student.

Their public support of the courage of the 11-year-old boy who reported this crime and then had to face his peers and his alleged attackers every single school day since then was not only the right thing for them to do, but as it turns out likely will effect statewide change.

I, too, was sickened by the story and touched by the boy's bravery. My heart went out to him and his parents. Simple common sense said his untenable situation could and should be eased with a few official signatures.

But after talking to many people involved in this issue, my heart softened as I was reminded, yet again, that not much is as black and white as we sometimes emotionally believe. Common sense and compassion are not always the same as our laws, which hopefully we appreciate when elected officials obey.

Were school board members cold and unfeeling last Monday night when faced with a crowd of residents upset about the unspeakable things they'd been fuming about for nearly three months? Or was the board's lukewarm reaction the result of, in at least a few cases, finding out about the situation at Gregory mere days before the meeting and still having few details?

(Hard to believe, perhaps, when many community members had known of this tragedy for weeks or months, but true.)

Was the board's unwillingness (or inability) to discuss a proposed victim's rights policy last Monday a lack of interest or concern? Or was it the result of needing all of the legal ramifications researched before members could responsibly consider such a policy at their next meeting?

I do know some board members agonized over this situation from the time they heard about it and were wishing many, many things. But wishing to act isn't something an elected official can do alone and they can't simply ignore the law.

Thankfully, there is someone who can help change the law. Rookie State Rep. Darlene Senger - a District 204 resident and parent - stepped in last week when things were starting to get ugly. She proposed her first bill in Springfield - an amendment to the state's Safe Schools Law - that would allow districts to immediately transfer students charged with juvenile or felony crimes to an alternative educational program.

"This absolutely is in response to the Gregory (Middle School) incident we've all been reading about in the last few days," Senger told the Daily Herald. "That piece is currently missing from the code. This would make it easier for them to proceed."

How quickly the proposal will be acted on is uncertain, but the victim's father praised Senger's quick action. Her action also took the pressure off the school board, making it more obvious that they needed help from the law to act.

Meanwhile, who can we be mad at if not school officials? Awful situations like this seem to demand someone be at fault.

First, though we must assume innocence before a trial, a police department's rules regarding whether they can charge someone with a crime are strict enough to assume from the start this was more serious than a kid's accusation. With this situation, we must look first to the perpetrators' parents.

Last week, many people claimed Naperville Unit District 203 had a "better" policy than District 204 to follow in such a situation. When asked about their policy, District 203 sent this statement from Superintendent Alan Leis: "In tricky situations, we try hard to work with parents, and so far that has worked for us."

He said more, and I will get to that, but obviously the first step in situations like these - altercations that have happened off school grounds in which schools officially have no standing but students are obviously affected - the first stop has to be the parents. Apparently parents in District 203 have cooperated in whatever situations have arisen.

The parents of the Gregory victim would have been able to move their son if they wanted, but why should the victim be further victimized by having to start at a new school? Why shouldn't the parents of the accused students voluntarily move their children?

Well, one reason might be that they believe their children haven't done anything. Many, perhaps most, parents would prefer to believe their children commit few, if any, wrongs - particularly when faced with something of this magnitude. However, if the police department charged these juveniles with felony sexual assault and sexual abuse, there must be enough evidence to convince the parents to, at the very least, wonder, and realize the victim deserves to live his life without seeing his attackers every single day.

That's an easy supposition to make until one considers, what if the accused perpetrator was my child?

Your perspective might change in that case. I'd like to believe I would still take enough responsibility to do the right thing, to teach my child about consequences for actions, but considering we don't know the specifics of the case, my most fair-minded self has to leave a shred of doubt.

Still, I simply can't get that young boy out of my mind - a boy whose day at a classmate's home turned horrific. Something happened to him that many adults can't talk about when it has happened to them as a child and yet he mustered the courage to tell his parents, then had to continue to not only go to the school where his attackers also attend, but see them daily.

"The district needs to remove kids from the school when they assault their classmates," the victim's father told the Daily Herald last week. "Keeping them there does not promote a safe environment for anyone involved."

It is very easy to agree wholeheartedly until you realize that what happened didn't happen at school and, as such, the school so far had no legal right to punish the crime.

As Leis said regarding District 203's policy, "Each situation would have to be evaluated on its own merits, and legal counsel would need to be consulted. Our foremost goal is student safety, but we must also protect all students' right to an education."

There are some publicly unanswered questions in this case as well, likely the result of the fact that, thankfully, this is not a usual event for any of the entities involved. Why did the school board not hear of this issue sooner? Perhaps because the school board does not usually deal with discipline (thought it seems someone should have alerted them sooner than three months after).

What does seem somewhat certain is that the staff at Gregory - a middle school I know well and may well be prejudiced in favor of - has done all it can do to protect all of the children there. The Herald last week quoted the victim's father commending the Gregory staff for "its initial supportive and sympathetic response."

The things I have heard about the Gregory staff's actions in this case do seem reasonable, though as the victim's father told the Herald, it is impossible to believe the boys don't see each other at a school that size - Gregory is one of the district's older, smaller middle schools.

Superintendent Stephen Daeschner told the Herald the district has followed its current policy. The policy needs to change if at all legally possible, which is what the school board can do and will consider on Feb. 23 at 5 p.m. during an open work session.

Last week, board member Curt Bradshaw presented a proposed victim's rights policy he drafted after looking at schools in other states. His suggested policy will be one of a number of things the board considers as they try to be better prepared in the inevitable case that another such situation arises in the future.

My hopes are hung on the district changing its policy and/or on Senger's attempt to change state law. But until the wheels of democracy slowly grind, the quickest, most humane action possible is really only up to the accused boys' parents.

• Joni Hirsch Blackman writes about Naperville. E-mail her at jonihb@aol.com.