7 Lingering Questions About The Sexual Abuse Case In Unit 5 | WGLT

7 Lingering Questions About The Sexual Abuse Case In Unit 5

Aug 15, 2019

Unit 5 parents have a lot of questions about their school district’s reaction to the allegations against first-grade teacher Jonathan Hovey.

Hovey, 47, of Forsyth, is accused of molesting two of his students at Glenn Elementary School. What’s most striking is that one of the victims made her allegations in 2005, though Hovey was not charged at that time. He continued to teach until, 12 years later, a second girl alleged that he inappropriately touched her in his class.

"There's this Catch 22 about what schools and principals and school districts can say when the allegations are still pending."

WGLT spoke to four attorneys with expertise in school law to better understand Unit 5’s response to both allegations and its lack of communication with parents since Hovey, an 18-year veteran teacher, was pulled from class in April.

What do we know?

A 7-year-old girl accused Hovey of molesting her during the 2004-05 school year. Normal Police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigated the claim. The girl was interviewed at the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a safe space for kids to discuss abuse allegations.

Ultimately, charges were never filed, and Hovey continued to teach.

“We were not able to develop enough information to make an arrest that would lead to a successful prosecution,” Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said.

On April 14, 2019, Unit 5 was contacted by the mother of a second girl, who said Hovey molested her during the 2017-18 school year. The next day, Unit 5 pulled Hovey from the school and placed him on paid administrative leave. The police and DCFS were contacted and began investigating.

They learned about the 2005 victim (now age 21) and re-interviewed her. Authorities said their allegations were similar, including the suspicious positioning of Hovey’s desk in his classroom.

On Aug. 2, Hovey was arrested on six counts of predatory criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The charges became public the next day.

Why wasn’t Hovey fired after the 2005 incident?

In short, Hovey wasn’t fired because no one proved he did anything wrong.

“That’s kind of the mystery of this case,” said Margareth Etienne, an expert on education law and professor at the University of Illinois’ College of Law. “We don’t have all the facts and we don’t know exactly what was found or what wasn’t found (in 2005). It’s not clear if some of the facts were found to be true but inconclusive as to their meaning, or if the facts were just not substantiated.”

A school district can conduct its own investigation of a teacher, in parallel with DCFS and the police. And districts are not necessarily bound by what DCFS and police do, said Brian Bare, an attorney with Whitt Law in Aurora who specializes in school law.

“The district can always take action on their own in terms of that individual’s employment,” he said. “But the school district has to be able to have their own evidence and prove their case.”

And that’s not easy.

“For tenured teachers, there’s a very complicated procedure under the Illinois School Code regarding how you dismiss a tenured teacher and what hearing rights they have before an independent hearing officer after the district has taken action,” Bare said.

The burden of proof for a teacher dismissal is the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning it’s more likely than not that the alleged conduct happened, Bare said. That’s a lower bar than the criminal justice system’s well-known “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

“It’s a lower burden of proof, but it is still a significant burden,” Bare said. “And a tenure teacher dismissal hearing, for example, can in many respects resemble a full criminal trial, with multiple witnesses and documentary evidence. It just takes place in a conference room rather than a courtroom.”

Not every school employee is protected the same, attorneys told WGLT. A longtime tenured teacher would have different protections than, say, a janitor with five days on the job. Tenure typically happens after four years working in the same district.

These protections may sound foreign to those working for a private employer. A private company has much more latitude in firing someone with or without cause, so long as they’re not discriminating against a protected class. Teachers’ unions have long argued that these protections are also aimed at protecting good teachers from false accusations.

It’s unclear whether Hovey was reprimanded or put under any additional supervision as a result of the 2005 allegation—or if he was even aware of it. This week Unit 5 declined WGLT’s requests for complaints or disciplinary records related to Hovey, citing an “ongoing criminal investigation.”

The Unit Five Education Association, the union that represents Unit 5 teachers, declined to comment on the Hovey case, citing the ongoing investigations.

How were the 2005 allegations documented? Do those records exist?

This is another area with a lot of uncertainty.

Clearly, someone was aware of the 2005 allegations after the 2017-18 victim stepped forward. When they charged Hovey, prosecutors said “during the course of investigating this disclosure, a (Normal Police) detective was made aware of a similar allegation against (Hovey) from 2005. The detective reviewed that report,” and a subsequent interview with that victim led to charges.

There are two final finding decisions that can result from a DCFS investigation: unfounded or indicated. “Unfounded” means the investigation did not find credible evidence that a child was abused or neglect. “Indicated” means there was credible evidence of abuse or neglect.

Presumably, the 2005 allegation against Hovey was determined to be unfounded. State law requires that unfounded DCFS reports be purged from an employee’s personnel file, said Bare. DCFS maintains a central register of unfounded reports, but only for the past five years, he said.

If Hovey was subject to any disciplinary action stemming from the 2005 incident, Unit 5 may not legally be allowed to disclose that. That’s because of the state’s Personnel Records Review Act, which prohibits employers from publicly disclosing disciplinary actions or letters of reprimand that are over four years old.

Was Unit 5’s response to these allegations typical for a school district?

That’s unclear for the 2005 case, given the limited visibility into what happened. In recent weeks Unit 5 has said repeatedly that “current district and school administration was not employed by Unit 5 at the time of the 2005 alleged incident.”

For the 2017-18 victim, Unit 5 does appear to be following the standard procedure for responding to an allegation of sexual misconduct involving a teacher.

Hovey was placed on leave immediately and told not to return to Unit 5 property without permission. The police and DCFS were promptly notified.

Unit 5 also told Hovey on July 14 to stop attempting to contact Glenn staff, Unit 5 employees, and other unnamed people involved with the case, according to a letter sent to Hovey and obtained by WGLT. The names of those people are redacted from the letter provided to WGLT.

Why didn’t Unit 5 tell parents what was going on?

Several Glenn Elementary School parents have expressed concern about the lack of communication from Unit 5 about Hovey.

Glenn Elementary School parent Claire Hedden addresses the Unit 5 school board about Jonathan Hovey on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
Credit Mary Cullen / WGLT

Claire Hedden, whose daughter was in Hovey’s class last year, said she was volunteering in the classroom on April 15 when Hovey was escorted out of the building. Hedden said neither the school nor the district communicated with parents about what had occurred until weeks later when a letter from the school’s principal explained Hovey was removed “for personal reasons.”

“A WGLT news article four months later on Aug. 3 was how I found out that my daughter’s teacher was accused of sexually abusing students in 2017-18, and previously in 2005,” Hedden said.

Other parents have said they lack a forum to discuss what’s happened.

“Why aren’t authorities contacting all families that had children in his classroom? Why has there not been a public or parental meeting with Unit 5, Normal Police, and DCFS? If you truly believe … that the safety of our students is our top priority, what are you doing to ensure that?” Hedden asked the school board Wednesday night.

School law experts say that districts don’t want to jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation or get ahead of the police. Often school districts don’t have all the information that a police investigation is uncovering in real time. They may be reluctant to say something that would curtail an employee’s due process rights by publicly disclosing allegations that may turn out to be unproven.

“There’s this Catch 22 about what schools and principals and school districts can say when the allegations are still pending,” said Etienne, the U of I professor.

Information relating to an employee’s performance of their job duties is public, but information that might otherwise be considered an invasion of privacy is typically not, Bare said.

“On a case-by-case basis, it can be hard to determine what is subject to that disclosure requirement and what needs to be withheld for privacy concerns,” Bare said.

Unit 5 has acknowledged this conflict.

“This is a very serious case and an ongoing investigation. While we understand there is a desire for more information, we do not want to do anything to compromise the police investigation,” the district says.

Etienne said there’s often a “delicate balance” between protecting children and making sure those who are accused can defend themselves.

“But when it comes to sex offenses or violent crimes, oftentimes that balancing act does have to weigh more heavily on the side of protecting the children,” said.

Is anyone trying to improve this process?

Yes. State lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year to overhaul the manner in which sexual assault investigations involving students are conducted. It’s awaiting the governor’s signature. 

The bill would allow the State Board of Education to immediately suspend the license of any educator charged with a sex crime or Class X felony instead of waiting for a conviction as in current law. The bill would also: 

  • Provide school districts with the ability to fire employees who negligently or willfully fail to report suspected abuse of a student to the proper authorities when abuse is witnessed. 
  • Require school districts to review their existing policies and procedures concerning sexual abuse investigations every two years. 
  • Increases the frequency with which school districts must check statewide databases, like the sex offender registry. 

SB 456 unanimously passed the Illinois House and Senate. 

“The importance of protecting our children is an issue we can all agree on, no matter our political party,” said sponsoring Sen. Iris Martinez, a Chicago Democrat. “The report released last year (about abuse in Chicago Public Schools) was shocking, and I am thankful to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for coming together to work on a solution. Students should be able to feel safe at school.” 

What’s next for Hovey?

Hovey is out of jail after posting $10,000 bond. He’s due in court Friday for arraignment. 

While initially on paid administrative leave, he’s now on unpaid leave pending the outcome of the case, Unit 5 told WGLT on Wednesday. 

Hovey intends to plead not guilty at Friday's arraignment, said his attorney, Tristan Bullington. He declined further comment.

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