In 2008, a judge sentenced former Illinois public school teacher Jon White to 60 years in prison after the educator pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 10 young students. Shockingly, it appears much of the sickening abuse could have been prevented.
In 2005, Illinois' McLean County Unit 5 School District finally forced White to resign from his teaching position after it twice suspended him, once for viewing pornography on a school computer and another time for making inappropriate remarks to a fifth grader.
However, when White applied to the neighboring Urbana School District a few months later, the McLean District did not inform Urbana of White's troubles when it completed an employment verification form. In fact, the district actually wrote a positive letter of recommendation for the guy.
White went on and then sexually abused at least eight young students in his new teaching position in Urbana before police finally arrested him in January 2007.
A rare but important ruling, holding public schools accountable
This week, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the McLean County district can be held liable for recommending White to the Urbana district when it absolutely knew that the teacher had a troubling record. [Read the court ruling.]
The court's ruling is quite notable because school districts – unlike the Catholic Church – enjoy a special immunity from lawsuits because they are public institutions funded by taxpayers. This immunity makes it almost impossible to sue public schools for covering up abusive teachers.
Except in rare instances – such as this case, in which the court allowed the case to proceed because of evidence of deliberate fraud – victims of public school abuse have scant recourse to sue districts for covering up for abusive teachers.
However, as a result of this important ruling, families of the abused students in Urbana will be able to sue the McClean County district for its shocking dishonesty and recklessness.
Scant media coverage of public school abuse
This case perfectly epitomizes the difference in which society and our court systems treat accusations of child sex abuse.
While a decades-old accusation against a deceased Catholic priest needs only to be deemed "credible" to result in a six-figure cash settlement, children who have been savagely abused today in public schools are forced through lengthy legal wranglings and the burden of having to prove in court that a school district was deliberately fraudulent.
Not surprisingly, the Illinois ruling has received modest media coverage. Surely if this had been a case of a Catholic diocese knowingly shuffling a troubled cleric to another diocese with a positive recommendation – even 40, 50, or 60 years ago – it would be a major national news story.
Double standard? Absolutely.