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After Allegations Oust Two Teachers, A Changed Payton Moves Onward

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CPS-made posters warning of the potential signs of abusive behavior are now displayed in Payton’s atrium. (Photo by Daniel Niño ’19)

After Allegations Oust Two Teachers, A Changed Payton Moves Onward

Efforts to maintain students’ trust after spring revelations

By Will Foster ’20 – Editor

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Two Payton teachers were removed last spring for alleged inappropriate conduct with students. Around the same time, the Chicago Tribune published a lengthy investigative report detailing numerous allegations of sexual abuse by Chicago Public Schools employees over the last decade, affecting every area of the city.

Taken together, these revelations have impacted the Payton community in myriad ways — not all of them obvious from the surface. Now wary both of inappropriate advances and of the appearance of such behavior, some students and teachers have become subtly more cautious in their interactions with one another. “There is now a universal mindfulness here at Payton and throughout the district about the use of adult power and the behaviors that are associated with those power dynamics and relationships,” said Principal Timothy Devine.

The first of the two recent Payton allegations came to public light in late May when Devine emailed students, parents, and faculty to inform them that a teacher had been removed from their position after an “allegation of inappropriate behavior … with a former student.”

The announcement came several days after students had been told that the teacher was on indefinite leave, and shocked many who had trusted and even adored the teacher.

Just under three weeks later, Devine sent out another email, informing the Payton community that another teacher had been removed from their position for a separate alleged incident of misconduct involving a former student.

The Tribune story broke in between the two revelations. However, the story did not mention either of the two teachers, and Devine said that its publication was not related to the timing of either dismissal. “The reassignment of those teachers had nothing at all to do with the Tribune stories,” he said.

The two teacher removals last spring were the culmination of separate investigations into misconduct. One had begun in December 2017, but according to Devine it took until late in the school year to gather enough evidence to remove the teacher in question. “The evidence came out when it did,” Devine said, “after lots of efforts by a lot of people in Central Office and myself to get evidence. And once there was enough reason to reassign the person, Central Office made the decision to reassign.”

The other investigation began in May 2018. “Through the force of our interest in protecting kids, we were able to slowly peel that onion,” Devine said. “I shouldn’t even say slowly — it took us about two weeks to go from nothing to having the teacher reassigned.”

After being reassigned in the spring, one of the two teachers resigned from CPS entirely in August. The other remains under investigation and is currently employed by CPS in a role that does not involve working with children.

The revelations were deeply disturbing to English teacher Kerry Catlin. “I can’t conceive of that lack of integrity,” she said. “And for a person like me who’s dedicated her life to teaching, it’s horrible when you see it happen.” She paused. “It’s awful.”

Students were likewise shaken by the revelations — some more than others. “I think it’s disgusting how a teacher would sexually harass a student,” said Sonam Rikha ‘20.

“They should face repercussions,” Abram Luna ‘21 agreed. “My initial reaction was immediate shock and surprise. Just being a freshman [at the time], I wouldn’t have expected this to happen, especially because a lot of my friends had one of the teachers for their classes. It was something no one really expected.” He added, “I think the bigger concern was not so much how the students would react but how the parents would react. I know for a lot of parents it was a great concern that both teachers were in the classroom teaching students.”

“I was not surprised by either [of the allegations],” said a current senior. “Like, at all. I’d heard the rumors since I was a freshman.” Another senior sitting nearby overheard and chimed in: “Wait, those rumors were real…?”

“I was a little bit in shock only because one of my teachers was involved in that,” added the first senior. “I was like ‘wow,’ I was under that, I was being taught by someone who maybe wasn’t trustworthy. But, all in all, I wasn’t surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.”

Teachers say they haven’t perceived a noticeable decline in students’ trust in them, although they caution that teachers might just not be seeing it. “I’m only one person,” said Social Studies teacher Vincent Vinluan, “so I’m not saying that there aren’t students who might feel a shift in trust with teachers. I’m just saying that I haven’t necessarily seen them.”

Said Physics teacher Nikolaus Barge, “I haven’t sensed that my students have trusted me less.”

“I think there’s so many different potential responses that a student could reasonably have,” Devine said. “I would hope that students’ trust is actually increased, because we’ve really underscored to faculty members that teachers have power in the relationship with students, and that they have to treat that power very sensitively and smartly.”

During professional development week in August just before school opened, teachers underwent training on CPS’ new guidelines, promulgated in response to the Tribune story. A central element of the training was a “traffic light” of “green,” “yellow,” and “red” teacher-student interactions.

Green behaviors usually include, for example, tutoring students in spaces visible to others or shaking hands with or high-fiving students.

Yellow behaviors include initiating alone time or unusual physical contact with a student, or giving a student special treatment.

And red behaviors would include groping, inappropriate sexual conversations (in person or digitally), or rape.

Devine said Payton learned of the traffic light model from the U.S. Department of Education and brought it to CPS Central Office’s attention. The district then made it part of the new training for all of its schools.

When asked about the nature of the two alleged Payton incidents announced in the spring, Devine said they “would fall into the red category.”

The “traffic light” is just one element of a larger two-hour online training course that CPS developed in collaboration with the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center and required all faculty to complete over the summer.

Payton went even further. Devine said, “I asked Central Office — kind of demanded to Central Office — that I be allowed to require 100% of Payton’s adults who work on our campus, whether they’re CPS employees, employees for vendors, whether they’re a classroom teacher, special education teacher, security officer, custodian, anybody … Can I require them to go through this training and Central Office said, yes, that’s appropriate, so 100% of Payton’s adults have successfully gone through and passed the tests at the end of that training.”

CPS required all district faculty to re-undergo background checks before the start of school this year. The checks largely went smoothly, although some custodial workers were not allowed to report to work on the first day of school because their background checks had not yet been processed.

“Those are vendors,” Devine said, “and the law is that the vendors have to provide those background checks. Some companies were a little slow so that delayed things for a bit … But that ultimately got worked through by CPS and the vendors.”

 

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A central element of CPS’ new sexual abuse prevention training is a “traffic light” of “green,” “yellow,” and “red” teacher-student interactions. (Photo by Will Foster ’20)

 

Current Payton teachers say they appreciate the clarity and simplicity of the traffic light guidelines.

“I think that helped give me context about where some of those lines in the sand were,” said Barge.

As Payton’s Chicago Teachers Union delegate, Barge is familiar with the process by which the union assists a teacher after a formal allegation, although he said it’s unlikely he’d be personally involved.

“They would get a lawyer from the union who would advocate for that person,” he said. “It’s tricky because you have to make sure that students are cared for, and, if something is happening, that we find out quickly, and stop it and remove the person. But someone could say something that actually isn’t true … If someone is libeled, it’s really hard for that person to ever restore their reputation.”

This fear of an accusation has weighed on some teachers since the spring. With their interactions with students now under the microscope, teachers know that they must avoid even the faintest appearance of misconduct.

“There are definitely some teachers that, after everything that’s gone on, are a little bit more hesitant to do things … where even the slightest hint of impropriety can be taken from it,” said Vinluan, who in his seventh year at Payton teaches AP U.S. History and Honors Sociology.

“So I know that there are teachers who, especially immediately after what happened last year, were maybe a little bit hesitant in doing things like staying before school or after school, because those were situations where, theoretically, even if nothing were to happen, someone can kind of make the insinuation that something improper happened,” he said. “There’s definitely more awareness in terms of the situations that they’re placed in: can people view it as something that is improper? Things like staying before school or after school, where maybe there are less students in the classroom, or working one-on-one with a student.”

Nevertheless, Vinluan has continued his longstanding practice of offering test corrections and tutoring during lunch and before and after school.

“It’s what I’ve always done,” he explained. “And also, it’s usually not just me. For the students who typically come in at 7:15, it’s usually more than just one. And when kids are staying after until 4:30, it’s usually a lot of kids who are staying after. So I think in part that’s why I’m less hesitant about it.”

Pursuant to new CPS and Payton policy, he makes sure to keep his door open and to generally remain visible when interacting with students.

“It’s something that Mr. Devine talked a little bit about,” said Vinluan. “I have a table in the front of the classroom that’s pretty visible from the door. So especially if I know that there are very few students in the classroom, I sit there just so I’m more able to be seen.”

Kathleen Johnston, Payton’s current choir director, said, “I know there were some teachers that were really genuinely concerned and frustrated because they felt like they were going to have to change how much they helped a student one-on-one … I don’t see why that needs to change at all, as long as you’re doing it where everybody can see that you’re helping someone with schoolwork.” She added, “It doesn’t have to be in a closed room, it could be in the library. And if we stopped doing that, then I think we’d have stopped doing some of our most important work, which is to recognize and help a student who’s struggling.”

Johnston has continued to arrive early to school this year, although she always makes sure to keep her classroom door open.

Catlin, now in her twelfth year at Payton, said she’s likewise more aware of her actions, even if she hasn’t made any significant changes to her routine.

“I definitely want to ensure with my presence that I’m an ally,” Catlin said, “and that the relationship of educator to student is clear.”

She feels that her duties as a teacher with power over young people have always been straightforward to her.

“We understand those green light behaviors,” Catlin said. “I feel like I’ve always understood that. So this hasn’t been a big change for me … I think I am just very conscious of space and those kinds of appropriate meetings, but I don’t ever want to lose that aspect of teaching.”

All CPS teachers are mandated reporters of child abuse, meaning that if they witness abuse or learn of it (whether by a teacher or by a student’s family) they are legally required to inform the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

“I’ve been a teacher for 15 or 16 years,” Catlin said, “and my understanding of my responsibilities has always been very clear, and I’ve taken them very seriously.”

Catlin explained that the reporting process to DCFS is designed so that it doesn’t overly discourage teachers from reporting a suspicion.

“As a teacher, I am not expected to intervene or press charges or even make any public accusation,” she said. “So I feel like that takes off that pressure of needing facts, so we can trust our suspicion or our observation.” Of course, she cautioned, “allegations are very serious. But also, if you’re seeing the signs there, there’s probably something going on, and then you turn it over to the professionals. I’m not a counselor, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a police officer. But all I need to do is make that phone call and then those appropriate parties are the ones that look into it.”

CPS’ new policies regarding adult-student interactions, particularly the rule against texting students using personal cell phone numbers in virtually all circumstances, will have some degree of impact on teachers who coach athletic or academic teams.

As Vinluan enters his sixth year as coach of Payton’s debate team, he said the new policies have caused him to alter certain practices related to debate tournaments.

“If a student is late for catching the bus, I can’t just text him or her to say the bus is leaving in 10 minutes with or without you,” Vinluan said. “But I can have another student text the student on my behalf to tell them we’re leaving soon.”

Devine said Payton is looking into introducing Google Hangouts messaging as a substitute for texting in circumstances in which the latter might previously have been utilized. Google Hangouts would be tied to the CPS-issued email addresses possessed by all CPS students and faculty, so, as with emails now, CPS could keep a record of all communications made through Hangouts.

“There are some instances — few instances, but some instances — when most likely a coach, and on rare occasion a teacher, perhaps on a field trip, needs to immediately contact students via cell phone,” said Devine. “So we are exploring the possibility with Central Office of using Google Hangouts. It’d be a safer mode of communication for the kids. But it also would protect teachers. So it kind of goes both ways.”

Devine clarified, however, that he would not approve of Hangouts being used on a truly frequent basis.

“It shouldn’t be used, say, at 8 p.m. for a teacher to remind students to read pages 58-68 for homework tomorrow,” he said. “That’s not appropriate. That’s what Google Classroom is for. But this would be for a true emergency situation, or a coach or a teacher chaperone who has kids off campus.”

Additionally, Devine said the goal would be “trying to limit the one-on-one communication as much as possible. What I’ve suggested to our faculty is to only use a cell phone communication if it’s going to a group of students and at least one other adult, if not all the parents of those kids as well.”

Devine said this was the first time CPS had adopted a formal and clear district-wide cell phone policy. “I’ve been nudging Central Office for a number of years now — really, since I became principal here at Payton, because there’s never been a smartly worded cell phone policy from the district,” he said. Devine called the old CPS standards an “opaque Swiss-cheese policy.”

“Finally, as part of the outcome of the Tribune series in which 114 different schools were named, CPS started to realize they needed to come up with a different cell phone policy,” he continued. “Finally, we’re getting higher degrees of clarity.”

The two recent allegations were not the first Devine has dealt with since he became principal at Payton. On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 2012, he was driving when he got a call with some disturbing news: Robert Weaver, then Payton’s longtime choir director, had been accused of student sexual abuse.

“I remember it distinctly,” Devine said. “I turned the car around and came immediately back to Payton.”

To the public, Weaver’s career had seemed illustrious. After teaching music at nearby Lincoln Elementary in the 1990s, he became Payton’s choir director in the early 2000s, earning public accolades and student trust as he led the school’s renowned singers in performances throughout the city and the world. But Chicago now knows there may have been a darker side to Weaver. Between 1993 and 2012, the teacher allegedly engaged in sexual relationships with multiple male students. He also made frequent inappropriate sexual jokes and comments during class.

After Devine contacted the CPS Central Office about the initial allegation he’d received, CPS conducted a whirlwind few weeks of interviews of “dozens and dozens” of people who might have had evidence related to Weaver, ultimately culminating in a 37-page report. Weaver resigned a few weeks before students returned to school in September 2012.

It was only a year after Devine had arrived as principal at Payton, having previously served as the Social Studies Department Chair at Northside College Prep for 12 years. This was the first major crisis of that nature in his nascent tenure.

“That one incident ate up a super majority, probably 80-plus percent, of my time for about four months,” he said.

The first public hints of Weaver’s conduct arrived in 2016, when he was charged with criminal sexual assault of a family friend’s child (who was not a CPS student). But it was not until the Tribune series a few months ago that the public became aware of Weaver’s broader pattern of misconduct.

The Tribune quoted an unnamed Payton mother as expressing outrage over Payton and CPS’ silence on the reason for Weaver’s departure. She said her son continued to remain friends with Weaver after his resignation, oblivious to any danger.

“That upsets me to no end,” she told the Tribune. “It was just, oh, he’s left the school.”

Devine said CPS always vets sensitive communications to the school community: “I continue to work with folks in Central Office at the highest levels to try to help better their processes for allowing principals to communicate with their communities when such terrible situations occur.”

“I hope — I dearly hope — that the Payton community knows that this administration will never shirk any of our responsibility to the safety of kids,” said Devine.

As Payton moves forward into a new school year, teachers are deeply cognizant of the strain that revelations of past abuse could place on student trust in their teachers.

“I hope that the dynamic of trust can remain and be very positive, in the healthy places that it should be,” Johnston said. “And I hope that students don’t feel wary of everybody and everything, that they don’t approach school with a sense of fear.”

But she said it’s good for students to be more aware of their interactions with teachers.

“I hope that some of what’s come out has and will help students recognize situations that are uncomfortable and maybe inappropriate,” she said.

Devine said he hopes and expects that Payton teachers, despite any worries they may have, will continue to be available to students for help outside of class.

“That should never go away and doesn’t have to go away. But there just needs to be a layer of mindfulness about what is happening and where it’s happening,” he explained.

“We’ve suggested to faculty that there are many very reasonable, easy solutions to most of the concerns. Don’t be alone with a student in a far corner of the building where nobody ever goes, but meet with a student in the library or in a department office, where there’s another teacher there or there are glass windows that open to the hallways or something like that. It’s very easy to accomplish.”

“Our teachers are still 100% here for our students to really help them grow into young adults, and we know that one of the great outcomes of that is our students, when they are then in positions of power as adults, will know how to engage in healthy relationships and be mentors themselves,” said Devine.

This article appears beginning on page 1 in the October 2018 print edition of the Paw Print, under the headline “Allegations remove 2 teachers; changed Payton moves onward.” 

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