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Evanston Township High School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the school board Monday night he’s set a new policy that will limit staff access to locker master keys in the wake of disclosure of videos that appear to show school staffers using those keys to steal items from student lockers.

Witherspoon said that under the new policy only the chair of the physical education department will have a master key and that the chair and two witnesses will be present before any student locker is opened using a master key.

Witherspoon also denied reports that students had been punished for secretly recording the videos that caught the apparent break-ins.

“We are so thankful and appreciative of the students who were able to gather this evidence,” the superintendent said, adding that the school itself couldn’t set up cameras in a locker room. “Any chance that we’d be filming minors undressed would create a serious and scandalous problem,” he said.

Witherspoon, citing personnel confidentiality rules, declined to specify what action, if any, has been taken against employees implicated in the theft charges.

But he said, “We have always dealt very decisively and directly with any allegations that could be proved against any employee.”

“The investigation has to be very thorough and deliberate,” Witherspoon said.

And he added, “If indeed we have two employees who have betrayed” the trust placed in them, “that is not in any way a reflection on so many other employees” at the school and “the passion and commitment with which they work every day.”

A half dozen parents of ETHS students spoke to the board about the locker theft issue saying it had been a persistent and ongoing problem for years.

Some said they now were embarrassed to have blamed their kids for being careless with their possessions when it now seemed more likely they’d been the victim of crimes.

Witherspoon said thefts have been a problem at the school — as they are at other schools — over the years — but insisted that the school has never ignored the concerns.

“We have over the years caught perpetrators. We’ve not solve all issues by any means, but many thefts have been solved,” he said.

The school, the superintendent said, also has set up a new online reporting system for lost and stolen property that will encourage students to speak with Evanston police officers assigned to the school whenever they believe an item was stolen and not just lost.


Update 6:30 p.m.: In an interview this afternoon with the Chicago Tribune, School Board President Pat Savage-Williams said the board voted as part of personnel actions on its consent agenda Monday night to terminate one employee allegedly involved in the locker thefts, who she declined to name.

The board didn’t publicly indicate that it was taking action on the employee during its meeting.

She said the district is continuing to investigate another employee seen on a different video allegedly taking items from a student’s locker.


Related stories

No charges in ETHS locker thefts case (5/4/16)

Adults may be stealing from kids’ lockers at ETHS (4/28/16)

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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9 Comments

  1. Better key security

    The article saiid:

    "Witherspoon said that under the new policy only the chair of the physical education department will have a master key and that the chair and two witnesses will be present before any student locker is opened using a master key."

    ===================================

    In companies that deal with money, trade secret or other valuable information/materials, the key would be in a sealed envelop with a seal that can be identified if broken and the key would have to be signed-out—not in the "possession" of any individual.

  2. We need an Independent & Outside investigation

    Here are my comments from last night's ETHS School Board meeting:

    I am asking the ETHS Board to conduct an outside and independent investigation into the locker room thefts at ETHS in order to fully understand the safety shortcomings and to re-establish trust in our community and students.

    On April 29th I e-mailed you and highlighted the experience of my son and his “loss” of $20 from his wallet in mid December. This was the 3rd time he “lost” money at ETHS and every time it was during gym class. I shared  the communication I had with Matt Driscoll and the apparent lack of follow up even though Mr. Driscoll told us he “will take this matter very seriously” and “begin an investigation.” Little was done.

    I understand that teenagers can be careless, and some may even steal from their classmates.

    However, I am very troubled  that over the last 10 days, the number of e-mails I’ve read and the number of people I’ve talked with who also had very similar experiences. The persistent and wide spread nature of these thefts combined with the lack of attention by school leadership and disregard for students is unacceptable, especially at a public institution like ETHS. In fact, a student I spoke with over the weekend said he was given an extended detention by a dean for telling him about a theft in the locker room and saying he thought a security guard stole his money.

    And most problematic of all is that on June 17th, 2009 Dr. Witherspoon hosted a meeting with concerned parents about this SAME issue.  From these notes which I e-mailed you, it is very clear that the issues raised 7 years ago continue today. In Illinois there have been too many examples of  poor governance and disappointment with public institutions and by public officials – we need to provide full transparency and disclosure to our community. That’s why we need an outside and independent investigation.

    At the 2009 meeting, one issue raised was “the apparent tolerance of theft and burglary” at ETHS.  The Director of Security, Frank Kaminsky, said that “theft is a crime of opportunity. Gym lockers seem to be a major target of theft and burglary at ETHS” – and that was 7 years ago, and what has changed today? At this meeting, one staff member pointed out that almost every staff member at the meeting was new to ETHS, and that there has been a changing of the guard. Theft/burglary is not tolerated now.”

    I listen to what people say, but I really watch what people do, and in this situation, very little has been done over the last 7 years. In fact, on February 5, 2016, an article was written in The Evanstonian about thefts in the locker room.  Students comment, that “this is the way it is at ETHS,” there’s an acceptance of this environment.

    The bigger issue is the complete breakdown and lack of follow through that has enabled the thefts to continue for years, and years and years. The processes, policies, and procedures exposed b/c of the locker room thefts are clearly not an award winning performance by ETHS nor is it an example of Equity or Excellence.

    I hope the board will conduct an outside and independent investigation so that ETHS can keep our students safe, and start to rebuild the trust and confidence in our community and amongst our students that everyone in Evanston deserves.

    1. Locker Theft at ETHS

      My statement to the board last night:

      I would like to express my sadness, disappointment and outrage with regard to the “gym locker incidents” that were recently made public by some tech savvy students and the local media. I am left with so many questions and feelings of uneasiness.

      I recently expressed my concerns in several online community forums where this was a topic. It turns out, that I am not the only one who shares these feelings and there seems to be a long history of this being problematic based on testimonials that I have collected from former alumni.

      First and foremost, I am disheartened on behalf of the kids who had money or personal belongings stolen (my child being one of them). Everyone knows how awful it is and how violated we feel when someone steals from us.

      I think most of us can relate to this kind of offense. Once we come to terms with the loss of the tangible thing, it can leave us feeling pretty powerless.

      Second, I am disappointed to learn that this has been a persistent and pervasive problem. One parent told me that when she brought this to the attention of the school and complained that the likelihood (in her opinion) was that the thief was a “security officer” she was dismissed as a smart ass.

      Another parent shared that her son was given a detention for supposedly not locking his locker. Is this a situation of the fox guarding the hen house?

      One begins to wonder; who knew what, when, and why would a student be punished for reporting a theft? As evidenced by the audio in a video circulating, one is led to believe that the particular “safety officer” is question, not only opened the locker with the hidden camera inside, but he had been going down the line and opening other lockers as well.

      I do understand due process, but the immediate question is, even if it can’t be proven that this man stole something, what purpose does he have in rummaging through the locker(s)? Was he given some kind of permission by school officials to conduct a search? Was there due cause for a search? Is it standard operating procedure to check gym lockers while the students are attending gym class?

      Third, I am outraged that our children have been treated with such disregard. What message are we sending when trusted officials, meant to protect them, are in fact violating them? How long has this been going on? How many kids had money or items stolen but didn’t come forward because who would believe them anyway? How many kids did come forward over the years and were promised an investigation when in fact there was NO follow up at all? Is this an organized operation? How many other “safety” officers might be doing the very same thing?

      When kids report that things are missing from their lockers and that their lockers were, in fact, locked with the very lock they were mandated to purchase from the school, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that one out. So questions remain. Where do you go from here? How do you restore the trust of students who are entitled to use their gym lockers to store their belongings?

      When we send our almost grown children out into the world, we have the right to equip them with the necessary tools. Sometimes it is necessary for them to carry cash, or cell phones or computers or debit cards.

      It’s one thing for them to have to be concerned about their fellow student possibly stealing from them, it is a completely different animal that our kids have to worry about staff or personnel abusing their positions of power and stealing from them! How will you investigate the process by which ETHS Administrators seemingly neglected to follow up on repeated allegations over several years?

      The school owes the entire ETHS community more than a brief, engineered statement given the seriousness of the issue at hand. Trust, integrity, and confidence must be restored at ETHS. I am not alone in these views.

      Thank you for listening.

  3. My public comments from 5/9/16 Board meeting

    These are the comments I delivered last night at the District 202 Board meeting regarding the alleged locker thefts:

    My name is Laurel O’Sullivan.  I’m the mother of a Freshman  and a 6th grader at Nichols and another son set to enter ETHS in the Fall.

    I’m here today to join the other parents in expressing both surprise and anger at  the series of now documented thefts that has occurred systematically from our children’s lockers. An egregious act made all the worse by knowledge this has been a persistent and ongoing problem for many years.

    When my son started at ETHS in the Fall, I was and have been filled with nothing but excitement, inspiration and pride at the learning environment and opportunities available for him at ETHS.

    Today those positive feelings are being overwhelmed by  a growing sense of outrage caused by not just the events themselves but by the Administration’s failure to communicate in a more timely and honest manner about what appears to be  a pattern of putting the security and safety of our kids second. 

    And when I say safety I’m not referring to just their physical possession but to the sense of Trust that is paramount for an institution of this caliber to guard and be committed to more highly than perhaps any other quality.

    On May 4, last Thursday, I received an email from Dr Witherspoon that to say was “disappointing” would be an understatement.  It was quite frankly, in light of the allegations, insulting.  The focus was clearly on compliance with the legal process and “due process” with almost little to no sense of the urgency of what was at stake.  It fell far short of what I have grown in a short time to expect from this school, that I boast about with pride to friends and family.

    I feel a very real sense of betrayal and sadness.  Sadness that this is the example we are setting for our kids about what is acceptable. When I question my son, who was not a direct victim, he and his peers express cynicism –that’s just the way it is.  And he seems focused on assurance from teachers, real or not that the guards will be fired and a sense of “safety” resumed. 

    It's that cynicism that I worry about and that I refuse to accept.  It has no doubt impacted much of the student body whose peers have been told when they reported the thefts —its their fault for not locking the lockers.

    Instead of taking these allegations seriously, it appears we have largely undermined students and made the process of reporting thefts difficult to say the least. I’m glad to hear from Dr Witherspoon that at least the process is being corrected so that the process is no longer contained within just the school—but I’m left wondering why has more not been said about what specifically is being done.

    I found myself lacking the words to express to my son how the damage goes far deeper.   That as his parent, its my job to make sure I’m sending him to a safe and secure school where I hope that I can certainly count on the staff charged with protecting my kids to not violate that trust, and for those ensured with holding them accountable also don’t fail.

    When a public institution breaches the trust of its constituents the reverberations are felt far wider than just the direct victims.

    Dr. Witherspoon and the Board—I’m asking you to restore trust to this institution by providing more heightened and transparent leadership on this matter by 1) agreeing to conduct an independent investigation to 2) issue an apology to the entire student body and 3) to share this all transparently and in a timely manner so that the portent of  excitement and possibilities behind your often stated words, “It’s a great day to be a Wildkit” can once again hold true for me and my family. Thank You.

  4. I must be missing something

    I can't imagine another work place that would keep an employee who was stealing – let alone when there was a video of them stealing.   There is no requirment for charges to be filed.   Is there?  Let's say, like at Penn State, you have an employee sexually assaulting someone.  Do you need charges to be filed before the employer can do anything about it?  We have employees who are stealing from children.  There is a long history and evidence of theft.  Yet we've chosen to make it trickier to steal, versus dismissing or even suspending the employees?  Am I understanding this correctly?  Please tell me that the employees caught in the act have at least been suspended without pay.   Does anyone know?

    1. good to hear

      I just saw the word that ETHS has fired 1 person.  Good.  Now for the other person on video.  And then what to do with anyone who knew and said nothing.

  5. Thoughts on Dr. Witherspoon’s comments

    Just watched the video of Dr. Witherspoon and was disappointed that he didn't accept any responsibility for this situation. As the leader of ETHS, everything that happens at ETHS falls under his watch; the good, the great, the bad and the ugly. Many good and great things are happening at ETHS and Dr. Witherspoon extols those outcomes.

    However, he ignores and downplays the bad and the ugly. If Dr. Witherspoon in fact did host a meeting with concerned parents in 2009, our community needs to understand how and why these thefts continued, but as important, why did the oversight policies for the boys locker room continue? And why didn't administrators and other school leaders keep their attenas attuned to thefts in the boys locker room? 

    The good news is that many constructive changes have taken place with how these issues will be dealt with today and in the future, and one security officer has been fired, but there appears to be many more questions that are unanswered at this time.

    Evanston/Skokie taxpayers have a right to know.

    1. Agreed and how about apologizing, ETHS administration?

      Yes, the administration is not answering many questions about how thefts continued for seven years after that meeting with parents. I suppose that the administration is hoping that this will all blow over, first with new policies announced (why did that take seven years?) and yesterday with the announcement that one employee from the locker video has been fired. 

      But the administration needs to do more, much more.  Let's start with this: a written apology from the ETHS administration to any student who, in reporting a theft to the ETHS administration or security, was disciplined (detention, suspension or other) or admonished for asking or raising the issue of whether security personnel could be involved in the thefts.

      The ETHS administration not only turned its back on these students after they were victimized by the thief or thieves, the administration victimized them again by ignoring their legitimate inquiries and then disciplining or admonishing them.

      A written apology for each of these students is in order.  And any resulting discipline should be expunged from the students' records.  It is the right thing to do.

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