On Nov. 13, Pat Savage-Williams, President of the District 202 School Board, began the public business section of the Board’s meeting by moving an obscure agenda item listed at the end of the agenda to the Board’s first discussion item, saying, “It involves a breach of confidentiality. I want to be very transparent and clear about this.”
She then said that a series of emails had surfaced while the District was producing public records in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding the Evanstonian, the student newspaper, that “revealed actions of one of our Board members, Jonathan Baum, that appeared to violate the Board member Code of Conduct that is part of Board policy and the Board’s trust and confidentiality.”
Mr. Baum disputed the charges. “I’m grateful that we are finally discussing this in public because the conduct of a Board member is a public matter, and I welcome my opportunity to account for my conduct to those to whom I am accountable: the public,” said Mr. Baum. “Have I been faithful in my duties as a School Board member? The record shows that I have, most recently in the improper censorship of the Evanstonian.”
The Board’s discussion on this issue lasted about 45 minutes, far longer than their discussion that night on the District’s report on student achievement.
Confiscation of the Evanstonian
The underlying subject matter of most of the emails related to the administration’s confiscation of the Sept. 22 issue of the Evanstonian. Student editors of the newspaper brought the issue to the attention of the School Board at the Board’s Oct. 9 meeting. They said the paper was approved by both a faculty advisor and a member of the administration, but was then confiscated during distribution by a department chair, without explanation.
Marcus Campbell, Principal of ETHS, told the RoundTable the paper was confiscated because its “articles glorify both drug use and drug dealing, messages that are detrimental to ETHS students.”
Students disputed that conclusion, stating “There were no editorials, no opinions and no romanticizing of pot use.”
At the Oct. 9 meeting, Maryam Judar, Executive Director/Community Lawyer of the Citizen Advocacy Center, and Stan Zoller, a journalism educator and member of several related organizations, sided with the students. “The confiscation is inexcusable,” said Mr. Zoller.
A RoundTable editorial supported the students, saying of the disputed articles, “What we saw was a high-school publication with thoughtfully considered issues about marijuana.”
Before the Board meeting, Ms. Savage-Williams sent an email report to Board members, attaching the relevant emails. Although requested, Ms. Savage-Williams did not include his response to the allegations, said Mr. Baum.
At the Nov. 13 Board meeting, Ms. Savage-Williams summarized seven emails, four of which Mr. Baum sent, and three of which he received. After she finished, all other Board members were given a chance to comment. Only then did Mr. Baum have an opportunity to respond.
Email #1. The first email dated Sept. 22 at 5:15 p.m., was sent by Mr. Baum to an ETHS teacher, “forwarding a confidential communication from Dr. Witherspoon [Superintendent] to the Board,” said Ms. Savage-Williams. The email was “requesting deleted Evanstonian content so that he could offer advice in the dispute with the administration, calling into question the judgment and credibility of the Principal.”
Mr. Baum said the email was sent to Rodney Lowe, an ETHS teacher who is an advisor to the students who staff the Evanstonian. Mr. Baum said his email forwarded the Superintendent’s email to the Board, “informing us that the School District had halted distribution of the latest issue of the Evanstonian, had confiscated the issue because it contained articles, that in the words of the Superintendent “glorified and encouraged illegal drug use.” Mr. Baum said he was “alarmed by this development for three reasons.”
First, he said he “devoted his entire professional life to fighting for civil rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press.” Second, he said he was familiar with the Evanstonian, in part because three of his children served as executive editors of the newspaper, and “I was shocked that it might have engaged in the conduct with which it was charged.” Third, he said, “I was concerned that by confiscating the newspaper, the school might have violated a law, free speech right of school journalists.”
Mr. Baum said in his email he asked “Rodney,” a family friend, to send him a copy of the offending articles “so I could judge for myself whether they deserved the characterization the Superintendent had given, and offer advice.” He added, “In fact, I never did offer Mr. Lowe advice.”
Mr. Baum said he read the Evanstonian articles in question and “they did not glorify and encourage illegal drug use.” He said, in retrospect, he should have asked the Superintendent for a copy of the articles.
Mr. Baum added that the email from Dr. Witherspoon to members of the Board is not privileged or exempt under FOIA, and as such it is a public document.
Email #2. Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum sent an email on Sept. 22 at 5:22 p.m. to an ETHS teacher “directing him to send all further communications to Mr. Baum’s home email address, an apparent attempt to obfuscate Mr. Baum’s actions and involvement in this matter.”
Mr. Baum said the email was sent to Mr. Lowe, and he asked Mr. Lowe to send any further communications to his personal email account because he regarded Mr. Lowe as a friend, and he (Mr. Baum) was not acting as a Board member concerning the issue. He said, Ms. Savage-Williams “unfairly characterizes this as an apparent attempt to obfuscate” his actions.
Email #3. Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum forwarded Dr. Witherspoon’s email to a family member who was a former editor of the Evanstonian and directed her to respond to his home email “in an apparent attempt to obfuscate his involvement.”
Mr. Baum said this email was sent to his daughter, and he told her not to forward Dr. Witherspoon’s email.
Email #4. Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum received an email on Sept. 27 at 11:54 a.m., from the student editor of the Evanstonian, indicating that the teacher sponsors of the paper suggested they contact Mr. Baum, and the students asked for feedback. Ms. Savage-Williams said, “Following his pattern of obfuscation, Mr. Baum failed to report this contact to the administration and at 12:12 p.m., he forwarded it to his law firm email address.”
Mr. Baum said the students gave their side of the story in the email, and they asked for feedback on what he thought they should do. Mr. Baum said he did not respond to the email, but that he talked to students after the Oct. 9 Board meeting. He said he forwarded the email to his law firm email, so he could print a copy of it at his office.
Email #5. Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum received an email dated Oct. 3 at 9:52 p.m. from an ETHS teacher.
Mr. Baum said the email referred to some personnel issues, and he did not respond or have anything to do with it.
Email #6. On Oct. 12 at 8:59 a.m., Ms. Savage-Williams said, Mr. Baum forwarded to his wife and his son “a confidential email” from the Superintendent to the Board about a very sensitive matter. “This indicates a pattern of forwarding and showing emails from the Superintendent to the Board,” she said.
Mr. Baum said this email related to “preventing the attendance at the YAMO reunion of a former ETHS teacher against whom allegations of inappropriate sexual contact had been made.” He said the email was a public record under FOIA, and added he was “hardly the first Board member to share sensitive communications with a spouse.”
On the same day, Dr. Witherspoon issued a public statement to ETHS students, families, staff, and the community at large that a former teacher was prohibited from attending the YAMO reunion and from being on school property.
Email #7. On Oct. 17 at 10:58 a.m., Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum received an email from an individual who addressed the Board on behalf of the student staff of the Evanstonian during the Oct. 9 Board meeting. The individual thanked Mr. Baum for taking the time to talk with him after the Oct. 9 Board meeting. Ms. Savage-Williams said this email was not reported to the Board.
Mr. Baum said the email was from Mr. Zoller, “to which I did not respond.”
Mr. Baum added that after the Oct. 9 Board meeting, “I applauded their [the students’] commitment to principle, but I told them I was not going to give them legal advice. I told them if they wanted legal advice they should talk to the Student Press Law Center.”
Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum’s actions appear to violate Sections 2.82 (4), (5), and (10) of the Board’s polices. These sections provide:
“4. I will take no private action that might compromise the Board or administration and will respect the confidentiality of privileged information.
“5. I will abide by majority decisions of the Board, while retaining the right to seek changes in such decisions through ethical and constructive channels.
“10. I will strive for a positive working relationship with the Superintendent, respecting the Superintendent’s authority to advise the Board, implement Board policy, and administer the District.”
According to Mr. Baum, the Superintendent’s Sept. 22 email told Board members that the administration had halted distribution of the Sept. 22 issue of the Evanstonian and confiscated the issue and gave reasons for the action. The fact that the administration had halted the distribution of the Evanstonian and confiscated the issue was likely public knowledge shortly after it happened.
Under the Illinois Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, 105 ILCS 80, administrators had an obligation to demonstrate “a justification prior to a limitation of student expression under this Act.” In other words, administrators appear to have had a statutory obligation to disclose their reasons “prior to” confiscating the Evanstonian.
The Board’s Policy says, “There is no expectation of privacy for any communication sent to the Board or its members individually, whether sent by letter, email, or other means.” Section 2.140
At the meeting no one claimed that the Board had made any decision relating to the confiscation of the Evanstonian.
Most Board members, however, said they felt Mr. Baum violated their trust and that he breached a duty of confidentiality.
Mr. Baum said of a conversation he had with Ms. Savage-Williams, “There was much discussion about duty and loyalty. [Ms. Savage-Williams] said, ‘Board members have a duty of loyalty to the District and to the administration.’ This is where we differ,” said Mr. Baum.
“I believe my duty is to the District which is bigger than any of the individuals who serve it,” he continued. “It includes the entire community, students, parents, staff, taxpayers and other constituents, and residents. On behalf of that community, I have always done my utmost to gather information from all available sources, to ask tough questions, and to exercise independent judgement. I believe the record shows while I have made a few mistakes, for which I have apologized, I have discharged my duty with fidelity.”
The article as originally posted mistakenly said that Ms. Savage-Williams cited subsection (6), rather than subsection (10) of Section 2.82 of the School Code. The article has been corrected to reflect that.
In addition, the article previously stated, “In light of statements made at the meeting, it appears that the emails were produced to a third party in response to a request made under FOIA, indicating they are public records and there is no expectation of privacy.”
The RoundTable subsequently learned that Dr. Witherspoon’s Sept. 22 email referred to by Ms. Savage-Williams at the Board meeting was not produced in response to the FOIA request, on the ground it reflected a “pre-decisional” record, and perhaps for other reasons. Since the email reportedly reflects that administrators had made a decision to halt distribution of the latest issue of the Evanstonian and to confiscate the issue, and that they had acted on the decision, the RoundTable’s view is that the email reflects a decision that is not “pre-decisional” and further that it reflects factual matter, that is not exempt. School District 202 has taken a different postion.