Crosby: West Aurora continues to face storm of critics
By Denise Crosby email@example.com September 17, 2012 10:10PM
Alexandria Contini addresses the District 129 school board during its meeting at West Aurora High School on Monday, September 17, 2012. Contini said the school board failed to protect her children by not acting on allegations of abuse. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 6, 2012 3:21PM
As soon as I entered West Aurora High School Monday evening, I could tell there were storm clouds gathering inside that were every bit as dark as those blanketing the sky.
Standing in the hallway by the library, where the West Aurora School Board was about to convene, were Leon Smith and Jim Lewis, the district’s two ex-custodians who made big headlines after publicly accusing administrators of trying to cover up problems with now-convicted band director Steve Orland almost a year before he was arrested for sexually molesting his students.
Their accusations have lead to major headaches for administrators and the school board, including an investigation by the Kane County State’s Attorney’s office to determine if any laws were broken by West Aurora’s failure to report those suspicions in 2010 to the Department of Children and Family Services.
“We aren’t speaking tonight,” said Smith, of the rumors there would be upset parents and teachers facing the board on this dark and stormy evening. “We are just here to make our presence known.”
Others did plenty of talking for them. Right off the bat, businessman John Wilson, whose daughter was valedictorian of West’s 2012 graduating class and is now one of the most outspoken critics of the district, called the board’s decision to hire criminal defense attorneys to defend the administration as “outrageous” — and asked for plenty of resignations.
“Doesn’t the school district already have an attorney?” he asked the board, reading from a statement with wife Helen at his side. “If they want to go out and get high priced criminal defense attorneys, they should be digging into their own pockets, not the pockets of our children.”
Wilson blamed district officials for putting their own interests first, and described their actions as a “good old boy fraternity which is so remarkably transparent that it makes Animal House look tame.”
He said the “failure to report by Jim Rydland, Ed Howerton, Dan Bridges and possibly others sitting here today, is directly related to a now known sexual predator that has been convicted ... I pray that the State’s Attorney’s office files charges against these people and brings them to justice for further endangering our children.
“If you people had any inkling of a conscience, you would resign now,” he concluded. “Instead, I stand before you and demand that anybody that had knowledge of this failure to report in 2010 be terminated immediately.”
Outside, the storm was deafening. Inside, you could hear a pin drop.
Then the board immediately went on with its agenda, including more discussions on the action plan put in place in response to this controversy. Those include more involvement with Mutual Ground and stepped-up efforts from the district’s already hard-working crisis management team.
Things got tense again when another former parent, Alexandria Contini, who said she is a former military police officer, took her three minutes allotted to accuse the district of falsely arresting her son for assaulting a teacher his junior year, then lying to cover up evidence that showed he was innocent of the charges.
She told the board her son was so traumatized by the incident, he had to leave the prestigious college he was attending. Then, waving a DVD in the air, she challenged the board to review this tape she said was obtained from the Aurora Police Department and taken by hallway cameras that “proved her son’s innocence.”
By this time, the rain had let up considerably, which was good news for me since I had to dash out of the meeting to hit deadline. But later, sources told me Julie Leonardi, second grade teacher from Goodwin Elementary School in North Aurora, also addressed the board, where she spoke directly to what I’ve been hearing from teachers and parents since Leon Smith decided to go to the press: That teachers are facing bullying and threats of retaliation from central administration when dealing with professional matters, such as curriculum discussions.
More on that to come. Suffice to say, this meeting, despite the many positive things going on in the district, had a decidedly dark cloud above it. And I have a feeling this is one storm that’s not going to pass real soon.
“They think by ignoring what we all have to say this is going to eventually go away,” said Wilson. “I can tell you, that’s not going to happen.”