Six days after La Salle County Sheriff’s deputies led Serena Middle School Principal Aaron Rios out of the school, the Serena School District 2 Board said Thursday night that the situation didn’t involve students or their safety to a crowd of about 50 parents, teachers and students.
District 2 Board member Joseph Cantlin opened Thursday’s meeting by saying Rios was put on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, adding the incident didn’t involve students or their safety.
The message was too late, said a student’s mother.
Parents in the district, which includes schools in Serena, Harding and Sheridan, received no correspondence from school officials acknowledging the incident.
A baseless rumor started linking the principal’s leave to the mother’s daughter that spread around the school and on Facebook.
The student, with her mother beside her – and identifying themselves in public comment – said she had post traumatic stress disorder from a previous experience with abuse and the rumors had caused her anxiety. She reported the names of students involved in spreading the rumors to administrators, but she said nothing was done to quash the baseless rumor or discipline the students.
“My daughter sat in the office Tuesday bawling her eyes out,” the mother said.
Cantlin and Board President Renee Thompson said the board did not release any information at the advice of its attorney, Todd Hayden, of Robbins and Schwartz, who sat at the board table Thursday.
It’s unclear who made the call to put Rios on leave. The board made the announcement Thursday, but did not take any official action. They did not offer any further comment. Suoerintendent Spencer Byrd forwarded a request for further information to Thompson on Friday.
The mother said her daughter had to relive the trauma of an abusive situation in her life because the board wasn’t able to, at the very least, confirm the incident didn’t involve students or negate the rumor.
“Why didn’t you put it out there and get in front of it?” she asked.
Cantlin said Thursday was the first the board heard of the rumors to shouting objections from those in the attendance. He also said the board can’t control the spread of rumors, receiving another round of shouting objections.
“I do apologize,” Thompson said, noting the board will take a further look at what happened.
While they identified themselves during public comment, Shaw Media chose to withhold the mother and daughter’s names because of the age and sensitive nature of the student’s comments.
When Thompson was asked after the meeting what she felt about the public’s criticism, she deferred comments to the board’s attorney. The board’s attorney said he couldn’t comment on Thompson’s or any board members’ responses to the public’s criticism of the district’s communication.
Don Craven, a Springfield attorney who specializes in government law, said there was nothing legally stopping the board from issuing a statement to the public.
“They could easily have dispelled those rumors by indicating that the reason for the suspension was unrelated to students or student safety, without going into the reasons for the suspension,” Craven said.
Before the mother and daughter’s comments, community member Shellie Cartwright said she met with Byrd and other administrators, upset at the lack of communication since the Nov. 15 incident.
She said Byrd told her Tuesday he would have a statement on the incident, but he did not issue one. Byrd also told Shaw Media on Tuesday he couldn’t comment on the situation. Cantlin said Byrd had intended to release information, but their lawyer had advised against it.
“No communication leads people to make up their own minds of what happened,” Cartwright said, making reference to false accusations posted on Facebook. “When there’s suspicious activity, we’re taxpayers, this happened in a public place, we should be told.”
When asked who is in charge at Serena Middle School with Rios on administrative leave, Thompson said Vice Principal Ann Hoffmann. Thompson said a staffing plan was put together by the board, but she didn’t want to share it with the public before talking to teachers and staff.
Thursday’s meeting didn’t start until after 8 p.m. after a more than two-hour executive session conducted by the board. The meeting ended about 10 p.m. as two sheriff’s deputies sat in the parking lot.
WHAT LED TO THE ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE
The board didn’t comment any further regarding Rios’ leave, saying during Thursday’s meeting that the board was investigating the matter and it did not involve students or their safety.
Cantlin said the board is giving Rios an opportunity to respond fully “without jumping to conclusions” in the investigation.
Rios said Friday: “Community Unit School District 2 has asked that I not make any comment pending the outcome of a personnel matter. I am confident the truth will be known and I hope to be back at work in the very near future, doing what I do best which is serving the needs of those in CUSD2 with student safety being the number one priority.”
According to records, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office was called Nov. 15 to Serena High School to remove Rios from the building. He was not handcuffed or taken into custody. There are no criminal charges.
According to an incident report filed by Sheridan Police Chief Chuck Bergeron acquired by a Freedom of Information Act request, Bergeron said he was visiting a fifth grade class at Serena Middle School to prepare for an upcoming D.A.R.E. class.
Upon walking to the middle school entrance, he said he met with Rios, who was standing outside. When Bergeron said he asked Rios how things were going, Rios said “we need to get him arrested,” according to Bergeron’s report, referring to who Bergeron said was Byrd.
Bergeron said he laughed and Rios said, “I’m gonna take him out ... I’m serious, too.”
Bergeron said he told Rios a principal can’t talk like that, to which Rios said, “Yes I can,” according to Bergeron’s report. No further discussion took place, Bergeron said.
“It should be noted Aaron Rios did not say the name of anyone, but I’m of the opinion that he was referring to Mr. Byrd, as I’ve been made aware of issues between them. I’m also of the opinion that ‘take him out’ refers to killing,” Bergeron said in his report.
Bergeron said he met with Hoffmann and contacted Byrd, advising them to contact the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office immediately.
“As I noted no imminent threat/danger, I took no immediate action,” Bergeron concluded in his report.
Byrd requested Ottawa police provide extra patrols.
The superintendent also requested a stalking/no contact order on Rios. Byrd testified Monday in court, but based on his testimony, Judge Karen Eiten did not grant nor deny the order. A hearing has been set for 9:30 a.m. Dec. 6.
The Times also received information Byrd had been out of the office the week of Nov. 4, but returned Nov. 11. The board’s attorney, Hayden, said he couldn’t comment on why Byrd was absent. Byrd also said he will not comment on it.
“I don’t want to get into that; it’s a sensitive topic,” Hayden said Thursday night after the meeting.
When asked why the board would be able to comment on one administrator’s leave and not another, he said the board commented on Rios’ situation “to clarify to parents what’s going on.”
The Times has requested Friday communications within the school district regarding any disciplinary action pertaining to Rios and/or Byrd through the Freedom of Information Act.
Roxanne Dormer, a parent of the district, presented the board a petition with 57 signatures to keep Rios as the middle school’s principal. She said the 57 signatures were gathered in a day, and she has acquired dozens more with an online petition.
Several other parents and students commented, supporting Rios.
“He’s the best principal we’ve ever had here,” Dormer said.