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Teacher could return to classroom after abuse allegations deemed ‘unfounded’

Note: Carole Sharwarko is the founder of the Southland Investigative Reporting Center, which is providing this story.

After more than a year of investigation and deliberation, Flossmoor School District decided will not take action on claims of sexual abuse made against a Western Avenue Elementary School teacher. On Oct. 23, the board confirmed its previous determination that there isn’t enough evidence to support the allegations. 

The young woman who alleges she was sexually abused by the teacher as a child said that “exasperated and overwhelmed is an understatement” of how she feels upon hearing he could return to teaching. 

“I want people to know this is serious, a very serious issue,” said the woman, who is now 19 and living with her family outside of Illinois. “Just because it didn’t get charged doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Why would I be making it up? Why would I care about some random dude in another state, unless it really happened?”

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The decision to confirm the original conclusion leaves open the possibility that the teacher, who has been on administrative leave since the allegations were made in October 2021, could return to his position teaching in Flossmoor School District 161.

In an email, Superintendent Dana Smith said of the teacher’s future status: “No determination on the timeline has been made regarding a return to the district at this time.” Smith offered no further comment on the investigation.

The young woman’s mother said she believes the district lacked transparency in its investigation process, and expressed disappointment at the board’s decision.

“I’m speechless. It’s hard to put into words,” she said. “I know that we are very discouraged. It’s very discouraging to see the lack of concern for the innocent children in school District 161.”

Reached through an intermediary, the accused teacher said he was unable to comment at this time.

The former student alleges that the male teacher repeatedly sexually abused her in a school bathroom from 2010 to 2013, starting when she was a kindergartner.

Flossmoor police detectives investigated the case before elevating it to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Division. After its investigation, the state’s attorney’s office closed the case in November 2021, and then reopened it one month later. It continued investigating and deliberating for eight more months before closing the case without criminal charges in August 2022.

The school district launched its own investigation in January 2022. On June 8, 2022, the district sent a letter to the family, informing them its investigation found the claims to be unsupported.

“At this juncture, in assessing all of the facts, the claims raised by Jane Doe have not been established by a preponderance of the evidence,” the letter informed the family. “Therefore, Jane Doe’s claims are deemed unfounded.”

The young woman’s parents filed an appeal. The district reconsidered its investigation findings. As part of that appeal, the family spoke in front of the school board, according to the girl’s mother. 

“They gave us 15 minutes,” she said. “We drove for three hours to get there, and they literally timed us. It just made us infuriated.”

The board did pause the timer, however, when the young woman began to sob while delivering a prepared statement, her mother said. 

At the end of her statement, the young woman told the board, “This is never done for me. I wish it could just be over with, yet my body and brain will never not remember. It is a life sentence that I do not wish upon another child.

“I ask you to take action about this, because if you continue to do what you’ve been doing, I want you to know that I’m not done yet. I will never be done until something has been done to make sure this won’t happen again. I’m not done yet, I’m just getting started.”

In an interview before the final decision, the young woman’s mother said she hoped the family’s words and efforts would move the board to overturn the original decision.

“This is not for our benefit anymore. My daughter didn’t have to go to that board meeting. We have nothing to win. I don’t care about money. It’s about saving the children,” the mother said. “I don’t want anyone to go through the hell we’ve gone through. If anyone knew, they would see and know and understand.”

The young woman’s father called her a “true hero” for reporting the alleged abuse. “I am so proud of my brave daughter,” he said via text.

The school district investigation was conducted by attorney Paulette Perretti and Eric Melnyczenko, the former director of Administrative Services who left the district in June 2023.

Their investigation produced an eight-page report that notes the examination of records and interviews with the young woman and the teacher, along with about 20 other people, such as school staff and teachers who were employed at the time of the alleged abuse.

Among the reasons for their ultimate decision, the investigators said in the report there were no eyewitnesses to the acts alleged, and that the teacher was consistent and believable in his denials. It also said the assertion of the frequency of incidents and the location in which they were alleged to happen make the allegations impossible to have occurred without witnesses.

Attorney Melissa Anderson of the firm Frost Pearlman is part of the legal team representing the young woman. She said the family needs time to process the school board’s decision.

“I think what’s important right now is for them to digest what we’re all surprised to hear,” Anderson said. “It’s a concerning decision. We’re still concerned about the safety of students in D161.”

At the end of a victim impact statement the young woman provided to the school board, she wrote, “I’ve been haunted by ‘our little secret’ for so long, and it seems as if those in authority who heard of this secret would rather keep it a secret. I often hear people tell me I’m brave, but I’m not. I’m just a child who was traumatized. What happened to me didn’t make me a better person or make me stronger, what happened to me should have never ever happened.”

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