KANKAKEE — Kankakee School District 111 has hired legal counsel to investigate incidents of harassment perpetrated against the superintendent, school board president and other school officials by five community members.
In a legal notice obtained by the Daily Journal via the Freedom of Information Act, the individuals (including three women and two men) are asked to cease and desist their threatening statements and actions.
“Both the board and district administration welcome broad and robust political speech, in whatever forum made,” the notice states. “Even when criticizing public officials, though, the law does not permit you to make threats, harassment, or statements that are made with actual malice — that is, with actual knowledge that they are false, or with reckless disregard for the truth.”
The notice, dated March 31, alleges one of the women confronted Superintendent Genevra Walters at her car in a parking lot in June 2020; the incident was late at night after a board meeting.
The same woman is also accused of going to Board President Barbara Wells’ home, confronting Wells and her grandchild on the front porch, starting a “shouting match” and refusing to leave in a May 2020 incident.
The two men are accused of making specific threats of physical violence toward Walters; one of the threats involved the woman from the confrontation. The two other women are accused of making false, defamatory statements about school resource officers and administrators.
Members of the community spoke out against the harassment during the public comment section of Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Antoine Moore said he wanted the board to publicly address the incidents, which he likened to “adult bullying.”
“I feel that when someone attacks a person, going after them by yelling and trying to intimidate them, [especially] a woman, I feel like that is cowardly,” Moore said. “I feel like any man that’s in attendance when another man is attacking a woman is cowardly, and those things need to be addressed as a board. [We need to] have situations like that addressed so we don’t have people feeling intimidated.”
Vincent Clark, executive director of Kankakee County Community Services, said he was “very concerned” by the situation.
He shared that in his position, he has also experienced “adult bullying” numerous times, including an incident where a terminated employee made attempts to intimidate him in a parking lot while his children were in the back seat.
“Anytime a business person has to make a decision that affects someone negatively, that CEO or superintendent or even board members, when they make decisions, we should not feel as though our life or safety or health is at risk by people in the community,” he said.
Clark said it is the responsibility not just of the school board but also the community to “speak up” when they witness or become aware of this kind of behavior.
“As a man, if a woman is threatened, I’m less than a man if I don’t speak up and intervene,” he said. “The superintendent, the board chair, board president, board members, should not have physical threats thrown at them because of their position they take … We should not tolerate people in our community threatening the staff, superintendent or board members.”
Elston Flowers asked the board to “publicly denounce” any threat made to an employee or member of the school community.
Flowers also said harassment and threats are not the fault of the person being threatened.
“By allowing those things to happen, you basically say it’s OK,” he said. “I think it’s something you really have to come together and denounce.”
The school board did not address the matter during open session Tuesday.
The board did, however, abruptly go into executive session for about 25 minutes during the second meeting of the evening.
The second meeting was held to seat newly elected members, elect officers and reorganize the board.
After members were seated, the board voted 4-3 to go into executive session.
Wells said the executive session was to “have some discussion among board members about matters concerning the board,” in addition to another item that was already scheduled for executive session at the end of the meeting.
In a phone interview Friday, Board Vice President Darrell Williams said the board has discussed and begun to address the harassment, though he could not give details.
“Some of the concerns are, some people just don’t realize the responsibilities of the superintendent, and for some reason, we have some people who are lashing out. … As a board, we can’t allow anyone to attack an employee of ours, whether it’s the superintendent, administrators or teachers. We have to step in.”
He also said board members expressed the need to educate the public on what the duties of school officials and administrators actually are so some of these situations can be avoided.
Williams noted that some people have been frustrated about the pandemic and looking for somewhere to direct their anger.
“School has been a mainstay as far as how we do stuff. It’s just always been the same,” he said. “That’s one thing you can count on — 7:30 to 3:30. The pandemic changed that.”
He said some parents were getting “a little mean” because they felt strongly that school should go back to the way it was pre-pandemic; the district has been taking the position of providing choices for in-person, hybrid and remote formats, depending on what works best for individual families.
Williams stressed that there are proper ways to address concerns with the school district without harassment or bullying.
“Some parents are, ‘It’s my way or it’s my way,’” he said.