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Allegations of theft in the Evanston Township High School gym wing were addressed at the most recent District 202 Board meeting on May 9. Several parents spoke passionately about their views of the situation. ETHS Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon addressed the issue during his usual Superintendent’s Report. And a line in the consent agenda that passed with no discussion confirmed the “release” of a member of the ETHS safety staff.
On April 28, a video shot on a student’s phone from inside a gym locker seemingly depicting a member of the ETHS safety staff riffling through the locker hit social media and spread like wildfire, sending the school into an investigation that has rocked the community. The next day, a flier showing the face of the accused staff member was used to organize a protest by the student body in the school’s H Hall. The online parent forum, Parents Engaged, exploded with emails from upset families. Multiple news outlets have covered the story, interviewing students, quoting statements from the ETHS administration and talking to the Evanston Police Department, which is handling the investigation.
Parents who spoke during the public comment portion of the May 9 Board meeting expressed anger about a situation that many say has gone on for years unchecked. Speakers talked of how they were disappointed by the administration’s handling of the situation. Others detailed their embarrassment for having doubted their kids’ stories accusing staff members of theft.
Dr. Witherspoon spoke on the locker thefts and said he wanted to say what he was “able to say without jeopardizing the position of the School District or action we’re in the process of taking.” He said he’s heard some interesting things about “patterns” dating back to 1983 and wanted to point out a few things first.
Since 1996, Dr. Witherspoon said, the school has “been fortunate” that the directors of safety have been trained police chiefs, people “we entrusted the safety of all of Evanston to for decades.” The issue of locker thefts is not a new topic, he continued, and not an issue that these directors of safety would brush off and not take seriously.
“Thefts of any kind are very, very difficult to deal with, but because they are difficult doesn’t mean they are ignored. We have over the years caught perpetrators. We have not solved all but many [incidents of theft]. It would be a terrible injustice to generalize that since 1983 every locker theft was perpetrated by safety officers.“ He added that the number of locker thefts has decreased over the years.
On the current issue, he said it is “disheartening and sickening that the people who are hired to watch over the belongings of our students would be breaking the law and ripping off our students. We have always dealt very decisively with allegations against an employee. If we can prove allegations, we act in a decisive manner.” He acknowledged knowing multiple videos are “out there” and said an investigation “has to be very thorough and deliberate. The minute we received this information, we immediately involved the Evanston Police Department. This is not only a school matter but a police matter. If indeed we have two employees that have betrayed that trust, that is not in any way a reflection on so many of the employees of this district and how they work every day to take care of the children of this school.”
Dr. Witherspoon then detailed new procedures that have been instituted. A new reporting system has been put into place for accusations. If items are reported stolen, students are sent directly to the police officer in the school to file a report. No master keys to lockers in the gym wing will be distributed except to the chair of the physical education department who is to use the master key only in the presence of two other witnesses. If a lock is found unlocked, instead of placing items in a bag as before, a zip lock will be placed on the locker until the individual returns.
Dr. Witherspoon spoke directly about the students who created the videos, saying he was “thankful” the students gathered information “the school could not” as cameras cannot be placed in a locker room by the school. “No student was disciplined for gathering evidence” and no one should be “afraid of retribution” as has been rumored.
“We cannot share personnel matters,” Dr. Witherspoon said, but this should not be mistaken for meaning no action has been taken. “You can be sure serious action will be taken.”