By Bob Skolnik
A standing-room only crowd of about 50 people crammed into the Hauser Junior High School library on Nov. 27 for the meeting of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education.
But if the unusually large crowd was expecting to hear any discussion or much public comment about Colleen Lieggi, the principal of Ames School, they left without hearing much.
In 2011, as reported by the Landmark in October, Lieggi reported allegations of child sexual abuse against a part-time Ames School teacher, her former husband and a family in Riverside.
An investigation by the Riverside Police department found no evidence to support the allegations against the teacher or any of the individuals Lieggi had mentioned. After first moving to fire the teacher, District 96's administration backed off and the teacher ultimately resigned after the district agreed to pay her for the rest of year. The teacher also agreed not to sue the district.
Before opening the public comment portion of the meeting on Nov. 27, board President Mary Ellen Meindl took the unusual step of making a statement, apparently wanted to preempt a detailed discussion of the situation.
"The board neither individually or as board will tolerate personal attacks on students or staff or rude presentations from members of the public in its obligation to communicate with the public," Meindl said. "Please note that if you have a question or concern regarding a specific individual, the appropriate correspondence is an email or a letter to the Board of Education so we can carefully review you question or concern and respond accordingly."
Joanne Rogers, the mother of a former Ames student, made the only public comment. She asked for the district's policy on removing teachers from the classroom when a teacher is alleged to have committed child abuse.
Rogers asked if the district had a policy of immediately removing teachers from the classroom after they had been accused of child abuse. Left unspoken, but lurking right below the surface in her question is that the former Ames teacher wasn't removed from the classroom until two weeks after Lieggi reported the allegation to the police.
Many have wondered why, if Lieggi truly believed the teacher committed child abuse, did it take two weeks to remove her from Ames School.
District officials maintain that the attempt to fire the teacher had nothing to do with the police report or allegations of child abuse.
District 96 Superintendent Jonathon Lamberson told Rogers that district policy authorizes him to immediately suspend a teacher with pay in such a case, pending board action.
Rogers then asked why that policy wasn't followed in this case.
"We're not going to respond to that right now," Meindl said.
And, with that, the public comment period ended. Meindl asked if there were any further comments, and there were none.
Meindl said she made her remarks about public comment to make sure that people knew how best to get answers from the board.
"It was the first board meeting after the Landmark article," Meindl said. "I wanted to make sure people understood what is the best way to communicate with the board to get feedback. It's not a dialogue with the public, and it won't ever be. There's proper channels to go through if you have questions or concerns and you would like to have them answered."
Late at night the board met for slightly over two hours in closed session with district attorneys Tony Scariano and Julie Lewis and Lamberson. After the attorneys and Lamberson left, the school board talked among themselves in closed session for another half hour until adjourning at about 1 a.m.
Meindl confirmed that one matter discussed during closed session was the grievance against the district filed by the Riverside family also accused of abusing Lieggi's children. Police found no evidence to support that allegation and found that the family was out of town when one incident of alleged abuse occurred.
About 12 Ames teachers, more than half the Ames faculty, attended part of the open portion of the meeting.
"It's a very difficult situation for Ms. Lieggi and I was pleased that so many of her staff and the parents showed up to support her," Meindl said.
Rogers said in an interview that she was disappointed in the teachers who turned out to support Lieggi and suggested that the presence of so many teachers could have been intimidating to some parents.
"To be frank, if I had a child at Ames, I probably wouldn't be speaking up," Rogers said.
But an Ames parent said that she did not find the presence of the teachers intimidating.
"I did notice that several Ames teachers had attended the meeting," said Cristin Evans in an email. "I assumed they were there to support Principal Lieggi, but I didn't feel they were there to discourage or intimidate anyone who might've wanted to speak.
"I've worked with many of them as an Ames parent and they really are very reasonable, thoughtful people. So I think the bottom line is if you want to take a stand on a particular issue, you really need to get up and do it."
Parents of Ames students appear split, with some supporting Lieggi and others critical of her. Many are still uncertain about what really happened last year.
Some parents are putting their trust in the board.
"I don't have all the facts," said Jim Raffensperger, the parent of an Ames fourth-grader. "I think there are people who have access to all those facts. I don't know the whole situation and I think it's a delicate situation that involves her kids and I believe the board has made a decision and I think the board is going to stand by that decision."