Last week Colleen Lieggi, the principal of Ames School, met with the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education in closed session. It was the first time the school board has met privately with Lieggi since controversy erupted regarding her actions in the removal of a part-time teacher from Ames School in 2011.
The meeting took place after the open portion of the school board’s regular meeting on Jan. 15. Also in the small conference room at L.J. Hauser Junior High School were two lawyers from the law firm of Scariano, Himes and Petrarca, which represents the district, and District 96 superintendent Jonathan Lamberson.
Board members continued to meet after Lieggi, the lawyers and Lamberson left. The meeting, which went past midnight, took place as the school board continues to review the events that led up to a resignation agreement with former teacher Susan Battersby after the district first tried to fire her.
Last summer and fall when the matter first became public, the school board maintained the matter was closed and its investigation into the matter was over. Now, in the face of withering criticism and public outcry, the school board is re-examining the matter.
The meeting with Lieggi was helpful, school board members say.
“I think it was fruitful meeting,” said school board member Mike O’Brien. “I think it answered a lot of questions in my mind.”
When asked what questions the meeting answered, O’Brien would only say that the board has been satisfied that there was only a short period of time when Battersby, who worked three days a week, interacted with students after Lieggi had reported allegations that Battersby had sexually abused one of Lieggi’s daughters.
An investigation by the Riverside police department and other authorities determined that the allegations against Battersby and others were unfounded.
Lieggi’s contract with the district expires on June 30.
Board members claim ‘rush to judgment’
Some school board members say that Lieggi may have been the victim of a rush to judgment by people who don’t have all the information.
“I think there was a complete rush to judgment by a lot of people,” O’Brien said. “We’re not going to make a rush to judgment. We want to get all the facts.”
To that end most, possibly all, of the members of the school board have now read the 39-page Riverside Police Department report that describes the investigation into allegations, all determined to be unfounded, that Battersby, a Riverside family, and Lieggi’s former husband sexually abused Lieggi’s children.
For months most of the school board had refused to read the police report, even after it was delivered to them by Battersby’s father, saying it was illegal or improper to do so. But now they have decided to read the police report.
“Because we are continuing the investigation, I have read the police report,” said District 96 school board President Mary Ellen Meindl.
But, some board members have doubts about the accuracy of the police report.
“I question the validity of the entire Riverside Police Department’s report,” said board member Jennifer Leimberer, who said she read the report last month.
Leimberer said that she is not sure if she believes that Lieggi initially contacted the Riverside Police Department regarding suspicions against Battersby. Some board members apparently believe that the Riverside police first heard about Battersby from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or from an interview with one of Lieggi’s daughters.
“Colleen did not call the police department,” Leimberer said. “It came out of the interviews of the children.”
However, the police report clearly states that on Sept. 14, 2011, 15 days before Battersby was suspended without pay, Detective Sgt. David Krull was “contacted by Colleen Lieggi, who stated that she needed to talk to [Krull] about some new information.”
The report goes on to describe what Lieggi told Krull about Battersby. But Leimberer indicated that there is more evidence that isn’t publicly known and which apparently throws the police report into question.
Asked if she believed the police report was accurate, Leimberer told the Landmark, “I don’t.”
“We have evidence that goes along with that, and pieces will come out soon,” Leimberer said. “We keep getting new information. Unlike some members of the public, we can’t just use what’s reported in the Landmark as our sources of information to pass judgment. We need to have a lot more information in our hands.”
Board didn’t know about report
School board members have also revealed that in the fall of 2011, when the district first moved to fire Battersby and later agreed to pay her salary for the entire school year if she resigned and agreed not the sue the district, they had no idea that the police had talked to Lieggi or had investigated sexual abuse allegations made against Battersby or that Battersby had been clear of those charges.
“When we were making the decision back in the fall [of 2011] we were not aware of that,” said school board member David Kodama.
Board members Leimberer, O’Brien and Art Perry also said that they too were not aware of any police investigation or allegations of sexual abuse at that time.
“At that time I had no knowledge of anything related to any police reports or police involvement in any of these things,” said Perry.
Perry was asked if he thought he should have been told about the police investigation.
“I would say, in general, I wish I had had more information, yeah,” Perry said.
Leimberer said she’s not sure that knowing about the police investigation would have made any difference.
“Should we have been told about pieces of it?” Leimberer said. “Maybe, but some of it really didn’t have anything to do with her employment or about employees of the district.”
It is unclear when Lamberson knew of Lieggi’s contacts with the Riverside Police Department. Lamberson has not answered questions about this except to say that he was not informed of Lieggi’s contacts with the Riverside Police Department by the police, a fact confirmed by Riverside Police Chief Ton Weitzel.
Leimberer said the police department should have informed the school district.
“They decided to do an investigation of child abuse,” Leimberer said. “They’re obligated to tell the employer of a child care provider — which is a teacher. That didn’t happen.”
According to the police report, Krull advised Lieggi to “speak to the school superintendent for District 96 to advise him of the situation and she stated that she would.”
District 96 policy states that a building principal shall notify the superintendent of any report to DCFS concerning an abused and neglected child.
Lamberson has not answered when asked whether Lieggi told him of her conversations with the Riverside Police Department about Battersby. The Landmark asked Lamberson when and if he had notified school board members that Lieggi had spoken with the Riverside Police Department about Battersby.
“I can’t comment on that question,” Lamberson told the Landmark in an email.
Leimberer said that she knows when Lamberson became aware of Lieggi’s contacts with the police department, but that she is not ready to disclose that information.
Leimberer was asked whether the school board should have been told about the police investigation and report.
“That’s a hard one to answer,” Leimberer said. “I don’t think it would have changed anything. I think that’s the assumption, that if we knew about the police report that somehow the path of decisions would have resulted in a different end point. I’m not sure it would have resulted in a different end point. It’s hard to know because hindsight is 20-20.”
Additional legal counsel hired
Last week the school board unanimously voted to hire additional legal counsel, possibly to conduct an independent investigation of the entire matter. Leimberer said that she would support using the new law firm to conduct an investigation.
“I think it’s to bring a fresh set of eyes into the conversation and some fresh perspective into the conversation,” Leimberer said. “It’s obvious that we’re struggling with how to provide leadership in this conversation.”
The board hired the firm of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Roddick & Kohn a law firm that specializes in representing school districts and other local bodies of local government and has offices in Arlington Heights, O’Fallon and Peoria. The firm represented the village of Riverside for many years prior to 2009.
School board members also met in closed session for more than an hour and a half on Jan. 2 to discuss the situation.
“What I want the community to understand is that we do care about this and we are working through it,” Perry said. “We have spent a lot of hours on this issue, in fact to the detriment — it is taking away from our other business.”
Meindl also said the board has devoted countless hours to this matter.
“We’re not doing nothing,” Meindl said. “We are investigating.”