Safer: Steinert Investigation by District 67 was not Thorough
Board sought to dismiss Steinert after 2009 arrest, but superintendent asked them to reconsider.
An independent investigator hired by School District 67 told Superintendent Harry Griffith that he did not conduct a thorough investigation into the case of former Deer Path Middle School principal John Steinert at Tuesday night’s board meeting in Lake Forest.
- See earlier story: Report: No Wrongdoing, No Concealment by District 67 Officials
Before a full room at the district headquarters, attorney Ronald Safer also said the District 67 Board of Education did not direct Griffith to do more after Steinert was arrested for sending sexual and lewd text messages and emails in January 2009.
The handling of the Steinert case eventually led to full disclosure in a Nov. 16, 2011 Chicago Tribune article that detailed his conviction for misdemeanor harassment by electronic communication for sexually explicit text messages, voice mails and a lewd photo from his school district-issued cell phone to a 22-year-old Lake Forest College student, who was an intern with the Lake Forest Police Department working at Deer Path Middle School. On Nov. 20, the Board of Education approved Steinert's resignation.
Safer was appointed by the board in December to conduct an internal investigation into three specific areas of the Steinert case with regards to the actions of Griffith and the school board.
- To determine whether the school district’s policies and procedures were followed.
- To determine if those policies and procedures need to be revised and what are the recommendations for the revisions.
- To determine if any wrongdoing was committed with the matter at that time.
From the current school board, only president Julia Wold, and board members Jeff Pinderski and Laurie Rose were serving in 2009.
In the report, Safer said there was no district policy was in place for Griffith or the board to refer to in Steinert’s situation.
On Jan. 23, Gurnee police served Griffith with a search warrant for Steinert’s district-issued cell phone, and he was charged three days later. On Jan. 27, then Assistant Superintendent Michael Cyrus interviewed Steinert, and his questioning was guided by Phillip Gerner, an outside attorney who specializes in labor law. Griffith contact Gurnee police and received a redacted police report on Steinert.
Griffith Asks Board to Retain Steinert
Written evaluations were due for principals by law on Feb. 1, 2009, and Griffith, Cyrus and Gerner completed it asking that Steinert’s contract not be renewed. The board agreed not to renew his contract at the Jan. 27 meeting. In either February or March, Griffith came back to the board and asked that Steinert be retained under a series of conditions, including counseling. The board agreed to keep Steinert.
Safer said in the report that the District based its decision largely on what Steinert told them, and they felt he was being truthful.
“The conclusion that Steinert was truthful and complete, however, was without any objective evident to support it,” Safer wrote. “The administration, however, obtained nothing against which to test Steinert’s assertions.”
For example, Safer later added that Steinert denied sending explicit photos of his penis to the intern when asked by Cyrus. He did say he had sent emails that were “aggressive, assertive and explicit.”
Safer said the district faced a "paradox" in Steinert’s case. In his job, Steinert was considered an excellent administrator by district officials. His act against the college intern happened outside the school district, did not involve minors and was an isolated event.
“The Superintendent and the Board mistakenly believed they had sufficient and adequate information concerning his misconduct,” Safer wrote.
Safer added Griffith’s and the board’s inexperience with the criminal justice system left them with no guidance on pursuing additional information on Steinert’s case. The only lawyer consulted was Gerner, but no criminal lawyers. Even the lawyers on the school board were not criminal lawyers.
Audience Contests Findings
Parents who attended the meeting said they were unhappy with being given a paper copy of Safer’s report on the same night he presented it, eliminating the opportunity to digest it and ask more thorough questions.
However, that didn’t stop audience members from peppering Safer with questions for more than an hour.
Lake Forest resident Gary Finley said he was generally satisfied with the report, but felt Safer was apologizing on behalf of Griffith.
“Frankly it took away a little bit of the credibility of the report,” he said.
Safer said he was not apologizing for anyone’s behavior. “I was trying to relate what our recommendations were and trying to put that in context, which I did not intend as an apology,” he said.
Lake Forest resident Deborah Dent, who identified herself as a practicing attorney for many years, was “startled” by Safer’s findings.
“I think it is outrageous that anybody could come to a conclusion that this is anything other than gross negligence on behalf of our highly paid superintendent,” Dent said.
Lake Forest resident Beth Laufenberg questioned the validity of whether Steinert’s case happened outside the work environment, noting he used a school-issued cell phone to send text messages and photos, and that he met the intern on school property.
Safer said comparing Steinert’s use of a district cell phone as school property and thus related to school was like saying a check fraud scheme was related to the school because it was used with a pen taken from the school. “It’s not related in any real sense,” Safer said.
“I would disagree with that,” Laufenberg said.
Safer also characterized Steinert’s meeting the intern at school as “an isolated incident and I think barely characterizes coincidental.”
Julian indicated the report posted on the District 67 website is exactly the report the board received from Safer. In addition, the district will post a video of Tuesday’s meeting on its website. The meeting will air on LF City Channel 17 throughout March at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and 8 a.m. on Wednesdays.
A second article will be posted Thursday morning detailing more audience reaction to Ronald Safer’s report to the District 67 Board of Education. For more news and updates from Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch, "like" us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.