THREE OAKS — The status of Chikaming Elementary Principal Heidi Clark was indirectly discussed during the Feb. 22 River Valley Board of Education meeting.
After items 7.7 (Closed Session … to consider attorney client privileged communication), 7.8 and 7.9 (both listed as Personnel Matter – potentially subject to closed session) were removed from the agenda, Board President David Whitlow said “These items will be addressed at a later date that will be announced publicly as this matter is a complex issue.”
“We are doing all that we can to determine facts which includes a thorough investigation of allegations of misconduct and violations of board policies at the advice of legal counsel, and the forensic examination of a recorded interaction. We are trying to make sure that we do what is right, not rushed,” he continued.
In a Feb. 19 letter posted on River Valley social media and addressed to Parents/Guardians and Staff, River Valley Superinendent Scott Bojanich wrote: Recently the school district was notified of concerns regarding an employee and the potential of misconduct and violation of Board Policy. My most important responsibility is to protect our school district, including personnel issues. Personnel issues in particular often take time and are often complicated. When allegations are brought to our attention, we are duty bound to investigate and consider all aspects of the concerns brought to us, regardless of the persons identified.
After allegations were shared with our school district, legal counsel for the school district was immediately engaged, and the school district has been proceeding based on the advice of counsel. Placing anyone on leave is not something that we take lightly of without very good reason. The district would like to emphasize that the allegations did not involve misconduct relative to the physical or emotional well-being of our students.
As part of thoroughly investigating the allegations, both upon the recommendation of legal counsel, and in response to the concerns and explanations expressed by the employee on leave, we are in the process of hiring an outside forensic firm to assist in determining the authenticity of some electronic device related evidence related to the alleged misconduct. This process is expected to take a matter of weeks to complete. Thereafter, we will complete our investigation and make a recommendation to the Board of Education. Throughout this process, the Board of Education and the administration will have been committed to providing every opportunity to allow the employee on leave to provide information to the district with respect to the allegations.
We know that in situations like this, it is human to speculate and share rumors about what is occurring. Out of respect for all involved, we ask that you talk to your student and encourage him or her to stay focused at school on their class work and learning. Our excellent staff is dedicated to supporting your student’s academic experience despite the challenges posed by this COVID pandemic, and they will continue their efforts to provide a quality learning environment to enable their success. Again, there are no allegations that involved the physical or emotional well-being of our students.
The heart of the issue of Clark being placed on paid leave for more than a month, according to a member of Clark’s legal team, revolves around a recording of an interaction at the school that took place in 2018 and Clark’s subsequent testimony about that encounter.
The legal team member provided a copy of a petition to intervene filed Feb. 12 in the Circuit Court of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit in Henry County, Illinois. The petition lists Heidi Clark as the “Intervenor” and goes on to describe a situation involving her November 2020 testimony during a trial over a proceeding to modify a removal petition involving a minor child. The petition to intervene states that on January 13, 2021, one of the litigants in that case sent an email to the Superintendent of Schools for River Valley School District and the School Board alleging Clark gave “false testimony” and demanding a “letter redacting her statement and giving an accurate account of the interaction with me that occurred that day.”
The petition goes on to state: “Based on the email … the Superintendent of School, Scott Bojanich, placed Ms. Clark on paid administrative leave pending a termination hearing.” It later states: “No Court of law has made any such legal determination against Ms. Clark. In fact, Ms. Clark has an excellent reputation for over 22 years in the school district, most recently approximately 11 years as Principal of Chikaming Elementary.”
The petition to intervene asks the court to “prohibit further damage to her reputation by this disgruntled litigant to enjoin his further publication of the altered recording.”
It also claims “the recording altered at approximately 6:36 on the recording,” and alleges the litigant removed “his profane remarks to Ms. Clark in an effort to paint himself in a better light to the Court during his custody trial.”
During the public comment portion of the Feb. 22 River Valley Board of Education meeting, Rebecca Burnette requested as a show of support for the community “a timeline of available information regarding the staff concerns that were taken off the agenda today.”
“As … parents, taxpayers and members of the community we’ve really struggled with the lack of information that’s been made available … in terms of an actual timeline in which we can expect answers, but also in regards to how the staffing issues have affected out students in the classroom and the availability of the staff to perform their jobs on a regular basis considering the COVID restrictions they already have in place and now with this strain on the additional administration staffing how is that affecting day to day,” she said.
Also commenting was Kristy Kitzmiller, who reiterated the request for timelines and answers.
“There’s a desire for parents to have what’s been going on to be heard by the board so they understand how the changes have been impacting people,” she said.
Kitzmiller is listed as having started a CHANGE.org petition that includes the following language (the full petition can be viewed by doing an internet search for www.change.org/p/river-valley -school-district-board-of -education-reinstate-mrs -clark-as-principal-of -chikaming-elementary -school):
To the River Valley School District Board of Education:
We would like to make our position as a group known to you, as we are of a like mind, in regards to the recent mandatory leave of absence imposed upon our Principal, Mrs. Heidi Clark, at Chikaming Elementary School. As community members, we have become aware of circumstances of Mrs. Clark’s suspension and we are against it for the following reasons:
Mrs Clark is a beloved member of the community and prior to this incident, to our knowledge, has executed her duties and responsibilities as principal for a decade in an exemplary fashion
Superintendent Bojanich, with less than 6 months on the job, has not had sufficient time to evaluate Mrs. Clark. Particularly with COVID protocols, interaction has been limited among people, and there is no way that the superintendent could have a fully informed opinion of Mrs. Clark’s full impact on the school and community at large.
Superintendent Bojanich’s actions represent a dereliction of duty, depriving students of a critical support during an extremely stressful time. By going so far as to put Mrs Clark on leave, which he knew would necessarily be paid, he has cost the district money, and stressed the remaining administration at an already stressful time. The resulting fear and confusion has been painful and confusing for the entire community for no good end.
Therefore we, the undersigned members of the River Valley Community, humbly request the board call a special meeting and vote immediately to re-instate Mrs. Clark. And unless additional evidence has come to light, we ask the board to vote to a limited investigation so this hugely distracting matter can quickly be brought to a close.
A GOFUNDME “Heidi Clark legal expenses” drive with a goal of $10,000 for Clark’s legal fees has been launched. As of the morning of March 2 it had raised more than $5,100.
That GOFUNDME message (which ends with the hashtag #saveourprincipal) includes the following language:
Heidi Clark is faced with a legal battle that she did not ask for and one that she does not deserve to face. As a teacher, she was protected by a process and a support system. When she decided to advance out of that teacher role into a Principal role, she became an Administrator and lost much of that protection. These policies do not provided a support system or the protection that she and every other Administrator deserves when faced with a situation of doing the right thing.