The question whether an eighth-grade student at Illinois State University’s Thomas Metcalf lab school sexually harassed a female classmate by asking her for a semi-nude photo is the central issue of a lawsuit filed by the boy’s parents in McLean County court.
Thomas and Heidi Felstead contend the case is about a lapse in judgement by their son T.F. School officials consider the incident a violation of ISU's non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
A lawsuit filed in October by the Felsteads seeks to reverse a decision by the ISU Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, which barred T.F. from beginning his freshman year in August at University High School. ISU President Larry Dietz later upheld the OEOA decision.
Named in the lawsuit are U-High and its principal Andrea Markert, ISU and Dietz; and ISU Office of Equal Opportunity and Access and OEOA director Anthony Walesby. The Felsteads' lawyer, Troy Roberts of Peoria, did not return a call for comment on the lawsuit.
In his statement to OEOA investigators, T.F. claimed he asked the classmate for a nude photo after he set up a Snapchat account under an alias. The idea of asking for the photo came up in spring 2019 after another student suggested that having such an image “would be desirable,” according to the OEOA report filed in court. The other student did not specifically request the photo, T.F. told investigators.
In March, T.F. asked the girl for a nude photo through the newly created social media account. She initially refused but several days later sent a photo of her partially clad body with her face blurred. The Felsteads argue the girl’s photo is less revealing than some swimsuit photos.
In return, the girl asked T.F. for a nude photo. He sent her two images of men he found on the internet. He blurred the faces on the photos.
T.F. shared the image of the girl with five male classmates. At least one of the recipients bragged about having the girl’s photo, according to the report. After he became aware the girl knew her photo had been shared, T.F. “immediately” apologized to the girl, said the OEOA report.
The girl reacted to the apology by telling T.F. she was “more upset with herself for sharing the photo with him than it being shared with students,” T.F. told ISU investigators.
To be a violation of ISU policy, the boy’s actions must be “unwelcome conduct” that resulted in “a sexually harassing hostile learning environment that was sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive” for the victim.
Court documents indicate Metcalf’s dean of students, Megan Bozarth, heard statements that T.F. threatened to share the photos if the girl did not send him more images. T.F. denied that. Efforts by ISU police to obtain Snapchat exchanges between the two students to substantiate the alleged threats were unsuccessful.
As discipline for his actions, T.F. was barred by Metcalf administration from the 8th grade class trip and school dance. School officials told the parents the investigation remained open and more consequences could be imposed.
The heavier consequences came Aug. 15, the day before T.F. was scheduled to join the U-High freshman class. The Felsteads were informed T.F.’s admission to the lab school had been rescinded based on his alleged violation of the university policy.
Noting their son’s “serious mistake in judgement,” the Felsteads agreed in their appeal to Dietz that their son should and did face consequences.
“But we believe the continued consequences in this matter have become too severe and punitive in nature with respect to the behavior that was exhibited by a grade school student,” the parents argued.
“We understand that sexual harassment is a serious issue, but we also believe that there has to be some type of differentiation between university students, faculty and staff within the workplace as opposed to grade school students exchanging these types of photos,” the parents wrote in their appeal.
The Felsteads also point to emails they received from the girl’s mother in which she concurred with the parents that “the punishment does not fit the crime.”
“I feel like this is a case of teenage poor judgement (on both sides). I am embarrassed that my daughter ever allowed a thing like this to happen. I know everyone acted like (my daughter) was the victim, but I think she is just as much to blame,” the mother wrote in an email filed with court documents.
The mother also expressed regret for declining to talk with OEOA investigators. “I didn’t go because I really didn’t want to continue to relive the embarrassment of (my daughter’s) actions,” the mother wrote in an email to the parents.
The lawsuit also alleges U-High violated the Illinois School Code by failing to follow procedures outlined in state law for student expulsion.
In its response to the lawsuit, defense lawyer Brian Smith argued the university lab school is exempt from the state school code provisions on expulsion. Smith, who declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, also denied T.F. was expelled from U-High, arguing his acceptance to the school was rescinded.
McLean County court is not the proper venue for the lawsuit, Smith argued in the response. He said the lawsuit should be filed solely against ISU in the state Court of Claims.
A Feb. 3 hearing is set on a defense motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Still pending is a request for a preliminary injunction filed by the Felsteads to allow T.F. to attend U-High while the lawsuit makes it way through the court process. In a Dec. 13 petition for an injunction, the Felsteads said T.F. is being home schooled while his three siblings attend ISU lab schools.
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