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Orland fallout is far from over

Updated: September 23, 2012 6:14AM

People on both sides of this ugly controversy have said virtually the same thing: The arrest and conviction of Steve Orland ripped apart the West Aurora High School community, pitting families against families, students against students, teachers against teachers or administrators — with plenty of combinations of all the above.

And now those wounds are reopened, after a long-time janitor has gone public with claims district officials disregarded information about improper conduct regarding Orland almost a year before the band teacher was arrested and eventually convicted of sexually abusing two students.

The story is as convoluted as it is ugly and sad. And right now it’s little more than “they said/they said.” But at its center is a charismatic musical genius who fostered a culture of trust and physical affection that he used to his advantage to groom selected students for his own perverted purposes.

And it seemed to happen in plain sight. District officials insist they never saw anything that caused red flags. Dan Bridges, West High’s principal at the time (but now superintendent of the Naperville School District), compared the close-knit, award-winning band department to an athletic team. Hugs were not uncommon, as Orland was an energetic, demonstrative teacher. But at least one parent I spoke with knew the band teacher had kissed her daughter on the lips; and another recalled seeing Orland kiss his daughter on top of her head.

When the ugly truth was finally revealed, it’s no wonder there was so much denial at first about the monster in their midst. People talked, of course. Sides were taken. Gossip and innuendoes flew. But no one spoke out publicly.

Now, it seems, the chatter has picked up. And hopefully it will get more boisterous.

We wrote this story today because the School District decided to release a statement after The Beacon-News began investigating the janitor’s public claims that the district did not do enough with information about Orland’s behavior. There are still many questions not yet answered; many pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

But one thing is for sure: The Steve Orland case has once more become a hot topic of conversation in the community, as the district went into overdrive this week dealing with the janitor’s allegations. A revision of the district’s policy went out that clearly spells out all district employees are mandated to report any abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services immediately. And this week, Superintendent James Rydland told The Beacon-News the district was adding more components to its “action plan” that will help ensure this sort of abuse never happens again.

Also clear is the fact there is still heavy fallout from this teacher’s horrific crimes. The wounds have been reopened. But people on both sides of the controversy say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s creating conversation, releasing memories. And Michelle Meyer, executive director of the Mutual Ground domestic violence shelter, reminded me on Tuesday, sexual predators don’t just have one or two victims. “There are more out there,” she said of the Orland case. “I can guarantee it.”

Miriam Wade-Hicks, coordinator of the district’s student assistance program, is well versed in dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse. Before coming to West two decades ago, she worked at a crisis center and for five years at Mutual Ground.

While some parents claim the school did not do enough to help students, she insists programs were put in place immediately to offer counseling. (More on that discussion to come.) Still, crisis is her specialty. And she’s experienced enough to know it’s not going to be easy to move on from this one.

Says Wade-Hicks, “We will be in the recovery phase for a while.”

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