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Lessons from Orland fallout:   Building culture of trust, communication

West AurorSchool District Superintendent James Rydland

West Aurora School District Superintendent James Rydland

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Updated: September 27, 2012 11:14AM

As a former Dade County sheriff’s detective, John Wilson prides himself on being able to read people — the good, the bad and the ugly — and to figure out when folks are lying to him. “I don’t tolerate abuse of power,” he says.

But Steve Orland had him fooled.

The charismatic band director at West Aurora High School was so proficient at the game, he and Wilson, whose daughter was one of Orland’s top students, became “close friends.” And in fact, Wilson, now a successful businessman, said he found out later it was while he and Orland were having dinner at a restaurant that the teacher was furiously texting one of the girls he was later convicted of sexually abusing.

Wilson says Orland even admitted his guilt as police were closing in.

The arrest of Steve Orland in the spring of 2011 divided the West Aurora community. And that fall Wilson says, his daughter, who would eventually became class valedictorian, was among a talented group of band students who fell to pieces.

Frustrated because he felt the school was not doing enough to address the needs of these students reeling from the betrayal of their beloved teacher, Wilson says he demanded the school bring in professional counselors. But the administration, he says, “didn’t even bother getting back to me.”

The School District emphatically insists this was not the case. Miriam Wade-Hicks, coordinator for the district’s student assistance program, said a team of trained counselors immediately went to work to assess how best to deal with a crisis of such magnitude. The goal was to make sure all students were invited to participate in counseling, whether in groups or individually. However, there is no normal response to something like this; and not everyone is ready at the same time, insisted Wade-Hicks, who is trained in sexual abuse counseling and has worked for years with victims.

“You can’t force counseling,” she said, adding that “science tells us healing from trauma is often best when it is done on your own time.” Plus, schools must always be cognizant of the balance between attention to need and privacy.

Wilson was one of a half-dozen parents and teachers who called last week critical of the district after a school custodian went public with accusations his previous complaints against Orland had been ignored. While the district points to student and parent advisory boards among the many ways it strives to listen to the voices of its parents, at the heart of much of this backlash seems to be lack of communication. “They feel they are being dictated to rather than listened to,” one parent leader told me. “But they are afraid to speak up.”

And if the district was doing so much to help the students, they wondered, why didn’t parents hear more about it?.

Of course it’s always easy to be an armchair quarterback. Or to look at things in retrospect and see a much more clear picture — as the once invincible band icon now sits in prison.

But no one can argue Orland developed a toxic culture that allowed him to cross boundaries. “We all knew he was a huggy, kissy guy,” Wilson says. “But everyone had put him on a pedestal. He had a dynasty going on. He was untouchable ... the Pied Piper, and we all followed along.”

West Aurora Superintendent James Rydland, who has been forced into damage control, says the negative spotlight has caused him to “really reflect and think” about what the district can do better. On Thursday, he introduced an action plan he hopes will not only improve upon the many effective programs already in place, but will become a prevention model for other schools across the nation.

“We want to be number one in preventing sexual abuse of children, to put that even before learning,” Rydland said. “We are ultimately responsible for the safety of children ... we can’t educate our children if they are not healthy.”

Wilson, who believes there needs to be a change in leadership, remains skeptical — but agrees that “if something comes out of all this, then that’s good.”

And if that includes more parental involvement, then all the better. West School Board member Angie Smith, who is also an assistant superintendent in the Plainfield School District, points to low turnout at West board meetings and low participation at the high school as examples of frustrations on their end.

The bottom line: Here’s a chance to turn an ugly negative into something positive. This action plan by the district is full of excellent ideas that involve the participation of teachers, students, staff and the community. Now it’s up to everyone who loves the West Aurora School District — and there are certainly plenty — to push for the change they feel is needed.

And to all those who insist your voice is not being heard ... shout a whole lot louder.

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