Lewd texts spark outrage in Lake Forest

Colleges and UniversitiesConservationSexual MisconductEnvironmental IssuesLake Forest College

Lake Forest schools Superintendent Harry Griffith told angry parents Friday that he will seek the dismissal of a popular middle school principal who used a district cellphone to harass a college student with a sexually explicit photograph and texts.

Dozens of parents came to a hastily called meeting Friday morning at the District 67 administration office, where many demanded that Deer Path Middle School Principal John Steinert, 40, be fired.

With two meetings scheduled soon relating to the situation, it's guaranteed that the controversy will not die down quickly.

The decision on Steinert's firing will be considered at a special, closed-door District 67 school board Sunday evening, Griffith said. And there is a Monday meeting of the Lake Forest City Council to discuss the status of a police officer assigned to the school who is alleged to have asked the same college student sexually explicit questions at the school.

Some parents had asked that that police officer be removed from that role because the college student made those allegations in a police report. The superintendent said he asked the police chief Friday to reassign the officer. The City Council is expected on Monday night to call for an investigation of the matter.

Steinert, who pleaded guilty in May 2009 to misdemeanor harassment by electronic communication, was placed on leave Thursday after the Tribune inquired about the way the school district handled the case.

Friday, many parents demanded to know when officials learned the content of the sexually explicit texts and why officials didn't pursue more information two years ago. The victim filed a complaint with police in Gurnee, where she lived, in January 2009.

"I think it was willful ignorance," Deer Path parent Diana Moore said. "My concern is primarily with the school board and superintendent. It seems like they brushed it under the carpet."

According to police records, Steinert admitted he used a district-issued cellphone to send sexually explicit texts and a photograph of his penis to a Lake Forest College student even after she ignored them or told him to stop. The woman, then 22, was working as an intern for the Lake Forest Police Department and visited the school at least 10 times while shadowing an officer stationed at the school.

The intern also told Gurnee police that the Lake Forest officer made inappropriate sexual remarks to her during one meeting at the school, "asking her about what kinds of guys she likes, pornography and sex toys. (The victim) advised she became uncomfortable and began talking about something else," the police report said.

Friday, parents demanded more information regarding the police officer's alleged behavior.

By late afternoon Friday, Lake Forest Mayor James Cowhey Jr. announced that he had scheduled a closed-door City Council meeting at 7 p.m. Monday to discuss the school resource officer and internship programs. School resource officers are stationed at middle and high schools to assist school administrators in handling disciplinary matters.

In a voice mail, Lake Forest police Deputy Chief Glenn Burmeister said the local fire and police commission will investigate "allegations that were made in the newspaper" and said the mayor will handle any further media inquiries in the matter.

Gurnee interim police Chief Kevin Woodside recalled informing Lake Forest police Chief Joseph Buerger in early 2009 that the Lake Forest officer was mentioned in the report but emphasized he was not the target of the investigation.

Buerger deferred calls to Burmeister on Friday.

Burmeister said that Lake Forest police did not investigate the resource officer's conduct in 2009. At the time, Buerger's "response was to make sure the investigation didn't lead to anything reflecting on our officer, and it did not, so we did not pursue it," Burmeister said.

Based on what he knew about the matter in 2009, Griffith said, he wrote a strongly worded letter to admonish Steinert for unprofessional conduct, required that Steinert seek counseling and temporarily froze his salary.

Griffith told parents that, although he was aware of Steinert's conviction, he learned of the graphic nature of the cellphone messages only this week, after viewing a completed police report for the first time.

"My disappointment in this is deep; John was not forthcoming," said Griffith, adding that Steinert described his behavior as "flirtatious" at the time. "There is no way I am going to recommend that John Steinert keep his employment."

Griffith has previously said another employee had interviewed Steinert "multiple times" about the matter in 2009. School officials did not talk to the victim because she was not a district employee, he said.

According to Gurnee police, Steinert admitted that he sent the intern text messages from May 2008 to January 2009. Some included graphic references to specific sexual acts.

The State Board of Education, also prompted by questions from the Tribune, opened an investigation Thursday into whether Steinert's education certificate should be suspended or revoked based on his conduct, an agency spokeswoman said.

Steinert's lawyer on Friday stressed that his client "certainly acknowledges that what he did is wrong."

"He has expressed to me that, because of the backlash against both him and the board, he needs to do the right thing for the kids and the district, so things can get back to normal as soon as possible," said Brian Schwartz.

Griffith, in response to questions from parents, said Friday that, in hindsight, he would have handled the matter differently.

Only one person spoke in favor of returning Steinert to his position, saying he was a good principal, but she was shouted down.

"I am concerned he will resign and get a big state pension," parent Roger Medema said later. "I don't want him to get any kind of pension or severance pay. Nothing."

lblack@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Colleges and UniversitiesConservationSexual MisconductEnvironmental IssuesLake Forest College
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