Ex-employees: West failed to act on complaint about Orland
By Matt Hanley and Denise Crosby email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org August 21, 2012 11:36AM
Former West Aurora High School band teacher Steve Orland pleaded guilty in March to fondling two band students in 2010 and 2011 and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Updated: September 23, 2012 6:14AM
AURORA — Two former West Aurora School District employees are disputing a statement released by the district Tuesday concerning its handling of allegations of abuse of a student by former band director Steve Orland.
One of the former employees, who was a custodian at West Aurora High School, said he gave information to the district about Orland abusing a student 10 months before Orland was charged with abusing two other girls.
The School District’s lengthy, detailed statement was e-mailed to staff and posted on the district’s website in response to an investigation by The Beacon-News and a television station.
The statement outlines district officials’ understanding about what happened after the custodian walked in on Orland and a female student in a band storage room in July 2010 — almost a year before Orland was charged with having sexual contact with the two other girls.
Leon Smith, a long-time custodian at West High who retired last year, told The Beacon-News he informed officials that in July of 2010, he witnessed Orland alone in a band practice room with a female student. Smith told The Beacon that Orland was “all up on her” against a wall. Smith said when he came into the room, Orland tried to run and the girl began adjusting her blouse.
Smith believes his report was not taken seriously by the district and, if it had been, could have prevented future abuse.
The district, however, vehemently and repeatedly denied that Smith reported anything to any supervisor or administrator that would have shown physical or sexual abuse.
“In the overall context of what he reported, it did not rise to the level of sexual abuse,” said Pete Wilson, the School District’s attorney.
Orland later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexual contact he had with two other girls. Wilson and West Aurora Superintendent Jim Rydland said Smith has added details to his story since Orland was arrested.
“I don’t know why he told a different story than he told us,” Wilson said.
Smith said he was at West Aurora High School on or around July 6, 2010, when he heard giggling coming from the band storage room, a place where students would store instruments at school. It was a summer band time, when students would sometimes get musical instruction.
Smith had been a custodian in the school district since 1983. He admitted he did not have a good relationship with Orland. Smith said he felt Orland acted strangely around some students and Smith tried to keep an eye on him.
Orland was a highly visible member of the community, coaching baseball, serving on the PTA and directing the American Legion Roosevelt-Aurora Post 84 Band. Before he was put on leave in May 2011, Orland had been on staff at West Aurora for about 19 years. Bands under his direction performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival, as well as at Disney World and in Washington, D.C.
Smith told The Beacon when he walked into the band storage room that day, he saw Orland “up on (the student)” against a wall; that Orland was leaning on the girl with his hands either on her upper body or right above her head. Orland then ran away and the girl immediately began adjusting her blouse, Smith said. Orland said “it’s just me, Leonard,” Smith told The Beacon.
Smith said a few days later — between two and six days — he reported the incident to Mike Slou, then an assistant principal at West Aurora High School. Rydland, however, said Smith did not report the incident until two or three weeks later. On Monday, Slou also said Smith reported the incident two or three weeks after it happened.
Not enough evidence
The district said the same day that Smith talked to Slou, then-West Aurora High School Principal Dan Bridges was brought into the meeting. (Bridges is now superintendent in the Naperville School District.) Bridges said he took shorthand notes at the meeting. He said Smith stated he saw no contact between Orland and the student. Those notes were not provided to The Beacon, but Slou backed up Bridges’ statement.
Slou said he reviewed available security footage, but none directly showed the band room. According to Rydland and Wilson, Smith’s description of the girl was vague and weeks old. Neither Slou nor Bridges was ever able to identify the girl involved.
Smith said he also reported the incident to his union steward. Contacted by The Beacon-News, the chief steward of the custodian’s union backed Smith’s version of the incident, claiming Smith was upset school officials weren’t doing anything after he reported seeing Orland with the student. The steward said Smith told him he saw the girl pressed up against the wall, and the girl began fixing her top when Smith appeared. He also said an angry Rydland came to his school the morning after the incident was reported, demanding to know how the steward knew about the situation.
The steward did not want to be named in the story because he is looking for employment. He said he was fired by the district for taking a drink in school after-hours to celebrate his birthday.
According to Rydland, Bridges talked to Orland. Because of the time and vague details, Orland was unable to pinpoint the girl or the incident, Rydland said. Through his attorney, Orland declined to comment for this story.
District officials said they were faced with a report of a teacher in a room alone with a student — not an uncommon situation. Orland had no previous allegations of misconduct with a student in his file, Rydland said. So the district did not call DCFS because there was no allegation of physical or sexual abuse. No student or parent contacted DCFS or the district about the incident.
“We had no information from the custodian that there was ever any physical contact (between Orland and the girl),” Rydland said. “That was a critical factor.”
School employees are mandated by law to call DCFS if they believe a student has been physically or sexually abused. Kane County prosecutors would not comment on whether they investigated or are investigating Smith’s allegations.
“We cannot comment on any investigation or potential investigation,” said Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon.
On Monday, Rydland and Wilson pointed out that Smith never called DCFS and did not add some details until after Orland was charged.
“I don’t want to give the impression that if we had the evidence, we would not report it,” Rydland said. “That’s just not the case.”
Although the district called Smith’s report unfounded, Rydland met with Orland in August 2010. At the request of police, Rydland wrote a letter about that meeting almost a year later.
“I said to Steve that the behavior that was observed could give the impression/perception of inappropriate conduct even when none had occurred,” Rydland wrote in a letter dated Aug. 25, 2011 — two days after Orland was fired by the district. “Steve indicated at no time had he had inappropriate contact with the student.”
Court documents show that shortly after Orland and Rydland met in August 2010, Orland was having contact with other girls in the same band storage room. Court records show that between Sept. 1 and Sept. 30, 2010, Orland kissed one girl on the lips in the band room. Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31, 2010, Orland had sexual contact with a student in the band room.
Orland was eventually caught when another teacher tried to open the band storage room door on May 5, 2011. When the teacher tried to open the door, she met resistance at first. When she opened it, Orland and a West High student were inside, looking disheveled. The teacher did not return calls to The Beacon for this story.
Weeks later, Orland was charged with fondling two band students at separate times in 2010 and 2011. In March 2012, Orland pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Prosecutors later revealed that he sent thousands of text messages to students, dropped love notes in their lockers during school and wrote hall passes for the girls to arrange sexual encounters.
Orland, 43, of North Aurora, was sentenced to six years for fondling one 17-year-old girl and another six years for allowing the other girl, 17, to fondle him. With good conduct he could serve as little as six years in prison.
Rydland pointed out that when the district received the report that ultimately led to charges, they contacted DCFS and so did the teacher who discovered Orland.
“Ultimately, when the district did have information, they took action,” Rydland said.