Hired by school officials to investigate, a lawyer on Tuesday night announced that Lake Forest District 67 administrators did not intentionally conceal information about a former principal who pleaded guilty to harassment in 2009 for sending sexually lewd text messages to a college student.
Ronald Safer, a former U.S. assistant attorney, told a packed board room that he found the district lacked policies and procedures to address the scenario they faced three years ago.
Deer Path Middle School Principal John Steinert, 40, resigned in November after the Tribune revealed his 2009 harassment conviction. Steinert at the time pleaded guilty to using his work cell phone to send texts and a photograph of his penis to a college intern he met through his job.
“The ‘investigation’ of Steinert’s misconduct consisted of little more than the interview of Steinert and a failed attempt to get the police report,” Safer said, reading aloud conclusions in his written report.
He cited the superintendent and board’s inexperience with the criminal justice system, which “affected the district’s ability to both identify the type of information that was available and obtain that information. … “
“We conclude that this lack of knowledge and experience led to the limited investigation. We find there was neither concealment of information, nor intentional ignorance of the facts,” the report reads.
About 75 people attended the board meeting. Some residents expressed skepticism about his findings when they were allowed to ask Safer questions.
Deborah Dent, who identified herself as a mother of four and a Stanford University-educated lawyer, was upset that audience members were not provided with a copy of Safer's report before being allowed to ask him questions.
“It is outrageous that anyone could come to the conclusion that this anything but gross negligence on behalf our highly paid superintendent.”
Amy Messner wanted to know why the district hadn't already been working on strengthening its policies since November, when news of Steinert's conviction was made public.
“With all due respect, we wouldn't have known (about the incident) if it hadn't hit the papers,” Messner said. “Maybe it's the first time, maybe not.”
Safer proposed a policy addressing misconduct outside the workplace that he provided to the board. The policy would call for the district to hire an experienced investigator to gather and review relevant information in the event that it learns a school district employee is the subject of a criminal investigation.
School officials largely relied on Steinert's description of his interaction with the former intern when deciding how to proceed in 2009.
“You've got an excellent performer on the one hand in his job, and someone who has done something reprehensible in his private life,” Safer said.
Lake Forest School District 67 Superintendent Harry Griffith has said that he wrote a letter admonishing Steinert, required him to seek counseling and temporarily froze his salary. But he expanded Steinert’s job duties and gave him a bonus within the next school year.
Angry parents packed meetings last fall and questioned how the district handled the incident. Some called for Griffith and school board members to resign, which they declined to do.
The controversy prompted the district to hire Safer to review court records and conduct interviews to decide whether any wrongdoing was committed by administrators or board members who served at the time, officials said.
John Julian, board vice president, and three members who were not on the board in May 2009 formed a subcommittee to review the Safer report before its release Tuesday.
Griffith has said that the district based its disciplinary action on a heavily redacted police report obtained through a Freedom of Information request to Gurnee police in January 2009. That report did not contain the graphic details of the texts that the principal sent to the woman, who had visited the school while serving a college internship with the Lake Forest Police Department.
At the time, Griffith said, the district conducted its own investigation, during which another employee interviewed Steinert “multiple times.” School officials did not interview the victim because the case “did not involve any minors or any employees,” Griffith said.
The district did not notify the Illinois State Board of Education about the conviction because, as a misdemeanor, it was not required, Griffith said.
The state board, prompted by questions from the Tribune, is investigating whether Steinert's education certificate should be suspended or revoked based on his professional conduct, an agency spokeswoman said Monday.
According to Gurnee police, Steinert admitted that he sent the intern text messages between May 30, 2008, and June 13, 2008, and again between December 2008 and January 2009. Some of the texts were sexually explicit, including one in which Steinert asked the woman if she wanted him to perform specific sexual acts with her. Steinert also admitted to police that he sent the woman a photograph of his penis, the police report states.
The young woman, who lived in Gurnee at the time, also reported that a Lake Forest school resource officer made inappropriate sexual comments to her while she was serving in the internship program. As a result, the police officer was removed from his post at Deer Path Middle School, and the City of Lake Forest launched its own investigation into the officer’s conduct.
In December, the city suspended the school resource officer program and hired attorney Leigh Jeter of Clark Baird Smith to review the case.
The City Council is scheduled to go over the report Monday in an executive session, which is not open to the public. But officials have said they might share the results with the public at the council meeting later that evening.
Freelance reporter Susan Berger contributed.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun