ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon attends the Dec. 13 school board meeting. (Screenshot via ETHS District 202)

At Monday night’s gathering of the Evanston Township High School District 202 School Board, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon opened with a statement that “ETHS could have done better” in handling complaints of harassment and inappropriate touching against color guard coach Lorenzo Medrano.

Medrano was arrested in September in LaPorte, Indiana, on child seduction charges stemming from his work as a part-time color guard coach at LaPorte High School. 

At the last meeting in November, student representative and current ETHS junior Barbara Tomaradze told board members and school administrators that students were well aware that the school had investigated accusations against Medrano and cleared him of wrongdoing, as documents obtained by the RoundTable confirmed

“Over the past week, a couple of articles have been going around about a prior ETHS coach that has been arrested for child seduction in Indiana, and it’s known that students at ETHS complained about this coach, but other fellow coaches protected him, and the complaints were dismissed and he kept working here,” Tomaradze said at November’s board meeting. 

Responding to Tomaradze on Monday night, Witherspoon said he could not publicly discuss the details of a personnel investigation, but he acknowledged that the Dean’s office and Human Resources department had looked into accusations against a coach during the spring semester of 2021. He also said the coach subsequently returned to ETHS to help direct a summer camp. ETHS placed the coach on leave after he was arrested in September.

“We have been reviewing – and thank you Barbara for the points that you brought up – how it was handled, and we’re reviewing what processes could be put in place to make sure that we modify, or even improve, how that was handled,” Witherspoon said. “In my opinion, I believe that ETHS could have done better, and that’s why we’re looking at the processes to make sure that there are some additional things put in place.”

Witherspoon added that ETHS students need to be reassured that when they speak up about something, the school staff will fully care for and do right by them. 

Following the superintendent’s opening comments, Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie gave a short update on student well-being, covering the support programs available to students and demonstrated student needs.

Most notably, suicide risk assessments conducted at ETHS doubled from fall 2019 to fall 2021, according to Kinzie, while student psychiatric hospitalizations increased 50% in that same time period. That data points to a tremendous amount of need among students for mental health and well-being services, Kinzie said. 

Board member Pat Maunsell told Kinzie that she should not wait for the next budget process if additional resources are needed now to cope with the rising demand for mental health services.

“If you need something at the ‘wrong time,’ you still need to ask for it, and you still need to get it,” Maunsell said. “Those numbers of 100% increase in our suicide prevention and 50% increase in our hospitalizations – these kids are telling us something. I just want you to know that if you need something at the wrong time, don’t worry about that. We want you to get what you need.”

The role of school resource officers at ETHS

In October 2020 the school board directed the district’s Discipline Committee to conduct research and gather data on the relationships between ETHS community members and the school resource officers (SROs), who are licensed and armed police officers stationed at the school.

As part of that study, members of the committee have spent the last year putting out surveys and meeting with community groups like the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy and other parties like former Evanston Police Department Chief Demitrous Cook. 

At Monday’s board meeting, Kinzie, Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment Carrie Levy and Associate Principal for Educational Services Keith Robinson provided an update on the committee’s findings and research thus far, although the board has no changes planned for the SRO program at this point. 

“I’ve got to say, it was a pretty intense exercise,” Robinson said. “I think it was an exercise that we needed to do, and it was a very collaborative one and extremely transparent.”

In May 2021, the committee rolled out a student survey on opinions regarding the SRO program that 69% of all ETHS students completed. The district conducted similar staff and parent/guardian surveys in October 2021, but the staff survey had just a 23% response rate, while an estimated 5% of all parents and guardians filled out the survey. 

Ultimately, staff and parents demonstrated a greater awareness of and concern about the SRO program than students did, with 75% of students saying they had not had an interaction with an SRO compared with 50% of teachers and staff members who did. About 75% of students also expressed having a “neutral” relationship with the SROs, and 42% of staff said they had a positive relationship with the officers.

When asked how they would feel if SROs were not present at ETHS, 45% of students said they would feel “neutral/not at all different,” while 47% of staff and 55% of parents said they would be somewhat or much more uncomfortable.

During public comment at the board meeting, several students and community members expressed opposition to the continued presence of SROs at ETHS, saying that there is no evidence to support the idea that SROs improve school safety, and the presence of SROs can be triggering for students and staff who have suffered trauma from the actions of police officers in the past. 

“Having police officers at ETHS is undoubtedly reassuring to many students and faculty, especially right now, but we must be guided by facts,” said David Soglin, an Evanston resident and the Chief Medical Officer at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “The data is clear on three things: first, school violence is not reduced by the presence of armed police officers; second, police in the building increases the risk that student misbehavior ends in arrest; and third, for some adolescents, especially youth of color, the presence of armed law enforcement is anxiety-provoking and poses significant risk for their long-term well-being.”

Three current ETHS juniors also spoke in favor of SRO removal, advocating for increased investments in mental health resources and conflict resolution strategies instead.

“While school resource officers can provide peace of mind, we believe it is within the best interests of school well-being that SROs are removed from campus,” junior Meg Houseworth said. “We believe a majority of in-school altercations can be de-escalated by unarmed safety officers, mental health professionals and trauma-informed staff who have a better capacity to understand student behavior responses.”

Those students also added that they’re working with others at ETHS to gauge student opinions toward SROs and measure the benefits and drawbacks of removing SROs from the ETHS campus. 

Members of the Discipline Committee said much research is left to be done on the topic, and investigating ways to improve school safety will continue well into 2022. 

The District 202 School Board is scheduled to meet again after winter break on Jan. 18.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...