School administrators in McLean County can be sued for failing to warn a neighboring district that it was hiring a teacher with a record of sexual misconduct, a divided Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case with echoes of the Penn State scandal.
The teacher, Jon White, went on to abuse at least eight girls in his new job.
Administrators at McLean County Unit District No. 5 had gotten multiple complaints about White and suspended him twice, for viewing pornography on a school computer and for making suggestive remarks to a fifth grader. White was forced to resign.
But the district wrote a positive letter of recommendation for White. When he applied for a teaching job in Urbana, they filled out an employment verification form without making clear he left his job before the end of the school year.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, said the information that White did not finish the year might have been a red flag that would have triggered more scrutiny by the Urbana school district. The court said the students who were later abused by White can proceed with a lawsuit against the McLean County officials.
The ruling did not say school officials have a broad duty to warn other schools about potentially dangerous teachers. In this case, it was the action of providing false, or at least incomplete, information on the employment verification form that opens the door to a lawsuit.
"The court did what it had to do. It said you have to report," said Ellyn Bullock, a Champaign attorney representing four of White's victims. "I think the safety message will get through. I think it will even influence courts in other states."
School district officials are disappointed by the decision and are reviewing it to decide what step to take next, a spokeswoman said.
Lyn Schollet, general counsel for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the ruling should drive home the message that schools "should not protect themselves at the expense of the children we trust them to teach and protect."
White pleaded guilty in 2008 to molesting girls, often with a "taste game" in which the girls were blindfolded and had to taste various toppings placed on what they thought was a banana. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison for molesting eight girls in Urbana and 12 years for his actions with two girls in Bloomington-Normal.
The lawsuit claims the Urbana girls could have been spared any harm if officials at White's previous job had spoken up about his behavior.
Attorneys for the school officials said Urbana hired White without contacting them and before they ever wrote a letter of recommendation. They also argued that this situation does not meet the limited circumstances under which public officials can be sued for their performance in office.
Two justices agreed with the district.
"In the end, the majority reaches a decision which may well be popular, given the facts and circumstances of this case and a laudable desire to protect children, but one that is not well-grounded," Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote in his dissent.
It's not clear whether McLean County school officials knew White was sexually abusing students. However, they had suspended him for viewing pornography at school and forced him to resign after a parent complained that he was pursuing a student and had shown her a picture of actress Mena Suvari. In the movie "American Beauty," Suvari played a student who is the object of sexual fantasies by an older man.
Attorneys for the abused students maintain that White's superintendent, principal and other supervisors knew what might happen if he continued teaching. As proof, they pointed to an email written by an assistant principal to a union official after White was arrested in Urbana.
"I don't know the specific charges, but it appears to be much worse than the issues he faced here," John Pye wrote, according to court documents. "I'm glad we took the steps we did to get him out of the district. I believe it was you who said that he was on a path to further problems."
The case inspired a change in Illinois law. Now school officials who get a request for information about a job applicant are required to speak up if they have reported the job-seeker to the state child-welfare agency. That would not have applied to the White case because the school never reported him.