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New Illinois Law Focuses On More Protection Of Students

Curt Richardson
Unit 5 Attorney Curt Richardson says Unit 5 "is trying its best to protect our students every day."

A new law aims to create a safer school environment for students.

The law, signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on Aug. 23, allows the State Board of Education to suspend licenses for educators charged with, but not convicted of, certain serious crimes. If the educator is acquitted, they would have their license reinstated.

By suspending the teacher's license, it prevents them from moving to a different school while under investigation.

The law also increases the frequencies of background checks, requiring a check every five years the employee remains at the same workplace.

“It’s not going to be a whole lot of extra work,” said Curt Richardson, attorney for Unit 5. “The background checks that are required every five years ... are the same background checks that we already do prior to somebody being hired.”

One provision of the law requires schools to review their existing policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse investigations. Richardson said most school districts follow the Illinois Association of School Board’s policy and take their procedures from models crafted by the association.

“Most school districts subscribe to that service,” he said, “and I would expect that most of them have adopted policies that are similar.”

Richardson said Unit 5 had already taken steps beyond what was required by association procedures.

“Unit 5 has for the last four or five years … there’s a method in which when someone is hired on you can request using a DCFS form a check of the central registry for the abuse reporting line. You can do that check, and then they’ll let you know if somebody has been indicated of abuse or neglect within, I believe, five years.”

Schools have had the option of conducting their own investigations in parallel with DCFS and police agencies. Districts can be reluctant to do so out of a desire to avoid contaminating a potential criminal procedure or further traumatizing alleged victims by reinterviewing them.

Currently evidence is gathered in part through interviews by people certified to deal with potential child victims. The Children's Advocacy Center is among the agencies in central Illinois that has staff with the needed skillset and certifications.

Richardson said access to evidence from professionals at the Children's Advocacy Center will help schools avoid emotionally painful evidence gathering.

“There is some provisions in this new law that would allow school districts access to those video recordings at the Children's Advocacy Center and to potentially use those in a hearing rather than having to call alleged victims.”

It's unclear if the new law would have prevented a case like that of first-grade teacher Jonathan Hovey, a Glenn Elementary School teacher accused of inappropriate contact with a student during the 2004-2005 year and again in 2018-2019. Charges were not filed at the time of the earlier allegation, and Hovey continued teaching until similar allegations were made this year, when the 2005 case also received another look.

“In that situation I don’t think it would have changed anything because while we’re still trying to understand what happened (in 2005), my understanding is the state’s attorney declined to file charges. Because there were no charges filed at that time and had (the new law) been in effect, it would have allowed the state superintendent to suspend the teacher’s license at that time, pending the outcome of the criminal charges."

In these cases, the most important thing is giving both parties fair protections, said Richardson.

“I think there’s always that question when you have alleged victims and especially children," Richardson said. "You’re trying to balance the privacy rights of the children and events like these that are alleged can be traumatic and trying to balance that goal of protecting the alleged victims as well as the alleged perpetrator so they have rights as well … (Unit 5) is trying its best to protect our students every day.”  

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Sean Newgent is a senior journalism major at Illinois State University. He's an intern for the GLT newsroom.
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