By Carole Sharwarko
Southland Investigative Reporting Center
This story was produced in collaboration with Southland Investigative Reporting Center, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Homewood.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) has decided not to pursue criminal charges against a Western Avenue Elementary School teacher accused of sexual assault by a student. That teacher remains on paid administrative leave, according to Flossmoor School District 161.
The student, now 17, has accused the teacher of repeatedly sexually assaulting her over a four-year period of time, from 2010 to 2014, according to the girl’s mother.
Flossmoor Police detectives started their investigation into the case in October 2021 after the girl revealed details about the alleged abuse, and her parents filed a police report.
“Our family is absolutely devastated by the fact that there was such a lengthy and thorough investigation done by Flossmoor detectives, and that there are no charges by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office,” said the girl’s mother.
“After all these years, our daughter finally broke her silence. But it wasn’t enough. She is so incredibly brave for speaking out. She didn’t ask to be brave. She just wanted to be a kid, but her childhood was stolen from her.
“We are so very thankful for the diligent work of the Flossmoor detectives to uncover the truth of what happened to our daughter from 2010 to 2014,” she said. “Detectives Nick Kausal and Daniel Weaver worked so diligently to pursue justice for our daughter, and, for that, we will always be grateful. Through the most difficult thing we’ve ever had to go through in our lives, we met two of the kindest men.”
After their investigation, Flossmoor detectives passed the case to the CCSAO’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Division for consideration. In late November 2021, the CCSAO decided to close the case without charges. However, the office then reopened the case one month later on Dec. 21, continuing the investigation.
Now after investigating the accusations for another eight months, CCSAO staff informed the girl’s mother that the case would once again be closed.
In an emailed statement, the CCSAO said there isn’t enough evidence to bring charges against the teacher.
“After an extensive review of all available information related to this matter, including witness accounts, we concluded that the totality of the evidence was insufficient to meet our burden of proof to file criminal charges,” the CCSAO statement said.
“As prosecutors, we have both an ethical and legal obligation to make charging decisions based on the evidence, facts, and the law. We will continue to work collaboratively with police as they investigate crime and when information is brought to us, as we remain committed to the work of justice for everyone in Cook County.”
Mark Brown, an attorney representing the family, expressed surprise at the CCSAO’s decision to not press charges. He said the family plans to file a civil lawsuit against the teacher and District 161 at some point in the future.
“I echo the family’s frustration,” Brown said. “We’re shocked there’s been a decision not to charge the teacher. The evidence was substantial enough that charges are warranted.”
When District 161 was informed of the state’s attorney’s investigation, it placed the teacher on paid administrative leave. The teacher remains on administrative leave as the district conducts its own investigation through its attorneys.
In a statement, the district acknowledged the CCSAO’s decision not to press charges.
“In the coming weeks, the district will be finalizing its own internal investigation, which will include consideration of the State’s Attorney’s determination,” the statement said. “As this investigation involves confidential information related to both students and personnel, it is not subject to public disclosure. In that this matter is still pending, (the teacher) will remain on administrative leave.”
Throughout the investigation into the teacher by both Flossmoor police and the CCSAO, District 161 released two separate communications to parents regarding the case.
In the first on Dec. 2, the district released a statement informing parents that it had started an independent investigation into the student’s accusations.
In an email statement to a reporter on Dec. 15, the district said, “Flossmoor School District 161 is currently seeking access to all of the investigation information to conduct an internal review of the allegations.”
The second communication from district Superintendent Dana Smith was distributed on Feb. 18 and stated that the district “was notified today, Friday, February 18, that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has decided to re-open and continue the investigation” into the allegations of abuse.
However, Southland Investigative Reporting Center obtained an email between two people close to the case in which one writes that Smith was informed on Dec. 22, 2021, that the investigation had been reopened.
When asked to account for this eight-week discrepancy, the district was unable to produce evidence showing when it was informed by the CCSAO that it had reopened the case.
Depending on the circumstances of a case such as this, school districts have discretion about whether to conduct an investigation, according to Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson Jackie Matthews. Typically the investigation is conducted by a legal firm, Matthews said.
The legal firm Himes, Petrarca and Fester is working for District 161 to investigate the allegations against the teacher.
Matthews said that when a teacher is alleged to have committed sexual misconduct against a child, the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act requires school district personnel to report it to the Department of Children and Family Services.
District 161 did file a report with DCFS in this case, and that agency conducted its own investigation.
According to Matthews, criminal charges against a teacher cause an immediate suspension of their educator license pending the result of the case. She said ISBE also reports all licensure actions to the national NASDTEC Clearinghouse to inform other states of a teacher’s status.
The girl’s mother said that the eventual civil suit will allow her daughter’s story to be heard in court.
“Our focus all along has been to protect the innocent. We want to make sure that no other family has to endure what we’ve had to go through,” the student’s mother said. “We will continue to pray for justice.”