Orland controversy: How many mandated reporters does it take?
By Denise Crosby email@example.com September 1, 2012 10:00PM
Highly respected leader of the West Aurora music program, director Steve Orland had a dark side that was difficult for many to come forward to reveal. | Photo illustration by Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 3, 2012 6:10AM
To students, parents, faculty and administrators — indeed, the community itself — Steve Orland was a respected and charismatic band teacher whose popularity and musical genius earned him the nickname “Mayor of Aurora.”
But Orland’s police file obtained by The Beacon-News shows that long before his arrest and conviction for sexually abusing two of his students, many viewed the West Aurora High School icon in a more negative, at times sinister, light.
Witnesses repeatedly described his behavior as creepy, inappropriate and highly suspicious. One teacher — among a list of parents, students and co-workers who reported full body embraces, hugs from behind, kisses on the foreheads or, in at least once instance, rubbing the small of a victim’s back — said he had “never been comfortable with Orland’s behavior toward his female students.
Another told Aurora police she was suspicious but “hoped nothing was going on.” One person said it was so obvious, she figured others had to have noticed the behavior between Orland and one of his young victims. Another was so bothered by it, she told Orland to watch what he does, but the band director never paid attention.
One co-worker told investigators he wouldn’t do the same thing he’d see Orland doing, but that was how Orland had always been with his students.
And so, no one said anything. Except to each other.
There seemed to be no shortage of gossip, according to the police files. One witness said someone from the community approached her in a store in the spring of 2011 asking about the investigation regarding an incident the previous summer, when a janitor caught Orland with a student. The community member thought an investigation was being done by the school.
It was after that conversation, the witness said, that she “began paying more attention to Orland’s behavior.”
It seems so were plenty of others. Sort of. The band teacher was allowed to spend time alone with his student assistants, write at least 62 hall passes that police placed into evidence, and was able to spend time alone in a student’s hotel room, where photos of him snuggling under the covers of the bed with a female student were snapped.
Orland pleaded guilty in May 2012 and is now serving 12 years in prison. But a couple of weeks ago, the seamy headlines reignited after the janitor went public with allegations West Aurora administrators did nothing after he reported the incident to them in the summer of 2010. In its defense, the district says, acting on the advice of counsel, they determined there was not enough evidence to support a call to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
All of which begs the question, how many mandated reporters does it take to catch a sexual predator?
It’s a question I posed to Dr. Joel Milner, a visiting professor at Northern Illinois University’s Center for the Study of Family Violence and Sexual Assault.
“Why so many people did not report their suspicions is as complex as human nature itself,” he told me. Individual personalities play into the equation, of course, Milner said, as does fear of repercussions, especially if your suspicions are wrong. And who wants to get involved in something so ugly? The hero of this sordid case — the teacher who finally notified authorities after catching Orland in a band room with a student — told police she hesitated before opening the door because “I was afraid of what I would find on the other side.”
Even then, she waited almost a week before going to authorities.
Obviously, denial also plays a strong role, especially when the person in question is held in high regard by so many. How else do you explain why a parent would stay silent after her daughter told her Orland had kissed her on the lips?
Complicating things more is the fact teachers are supposed to show compassion and concern for students, Milner noted. Plus, Orland’s award-winning band program had developed a tight family-like culture where, much like sports teams, it’s acceptable for relationships between adult and student to be more physical.
Talk about fifty shades of gray.
“You can’t just blame the system or any one individual,” said Milner. “In this case, there’s plenty of blame to go around.”
What there shouldn’t be, however, is ambiguity about the law. The school district says administrators went to counsel and determined there was no need to report the 2010 incident witnessed by the custodian. But Milner reiterates the same point made by DCFS about those designated as mandated reporters, which includes all employees of every school district in this state. You only have to suspect — not know — there could be abuse to be required by law to immediately call the hotline.
“If you even feel the need to go ask someone if you should report it,” said Milner, “then you’ve answered your own question.”