When I tell people that I grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois it generally garners a response alluding to the community’s notable reputation for wealth and exceedingly well-maintained scenery, and for good reason.
The community set in the Northern suburbs of Chicago is no stranger to financial strength and has received notoriety for many of its current and former residents’ achievements.
Lake Forest was home to Ginevra King, F. Scott Fitzegerald’s first love and muse for many of his fictional characters, including The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchannan. Judith Guest used the city as the setting for her acclaimed novel Ordinary People, which was later transformed into an academy award-winning movie, also filmed in Lake Forest. The city cultivates beauty and owes its picturesque landscape and architecture to some of history’s greatest, including Frank Lloyd Wright.
And after the resignation of one of Lake Forest’s middle school principal’s last week, the affluent suburb can now add: home to another middle-aged creepy guy who sends sexually inappropriate, nonconsensual text messages to a young woman, while knowing school administrators will cover it up for those on its “notable” list. Good job Lake Forest, you really outdid yourself this time.
To be fair it’s not the city’s fault as much as it is School District 67’s, which encompasses all of the Lake Forest’s public schools, including Deer Path Middle School where, up until last week, John Steinert was principal.
In January 2009, a 22-year-old police department intern who formerly shadowed one of Deer Path Middle School’s Student Resource Officers reported that Steinert had sexually harassed her over the course of the internship. In the initial report, the victim informed authorities that Steinert sent her over 50 sexually explicit text messages – including a picture of his penis – and continued to do so even after she told him to stop. In May 2009, Steinert pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment.
Steinert’s actions were ill chosen and criminal, but School District 67’s lack of response and accountability in the aftermath is equally unlawful. Following Steinert’s 2009 guilty plea, the school district took away his work cell phone, mandated that he seek out counseling, and froze his salary, but still entrusted him with the safety of hundreds of children. Worse, the district’s administrators didn’t find it necessary to inform parents of the charges filed or Steinert’s guilty plea until recently, and only because the Chicago Tribune’s investigation revealed the full police report and the school district’s attempt to cover it up. Essentially, the principal received a slap on the wrist and the community had the wool pulled over its eyes. And in the year following Steinert’s salary freeze he collected a bonus.
The Lake Forest school district failed both its parents and children when it misguidedly declined to conduct its own investigation of the case against Steinert, feigning ignorance. Although Superintendent Harry Griffith and board members have admitted to mishandling the situation, they remain steadfast in their decision not to resign at the request of angry parents.
The veil has been lifted for thousands of Lake Forest parents and Steinert was sent walking. If Griffith and school district board members want to reclaim any ounce of integrity and accountability among their community, they will follow in Steinert’s footsteps.
Some will argue that asking Superintendent Griffith and the board members to resign over their inaction regarding Steinert’s guilty plea to misdemeanor harassment is too harsh. After all, he was 40 and she was 22. While this is true, the issue at-hand is not one of age. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment. Steinert engaged in nonconsensual sexual activity with an intern and continued to do so after she requested that he stop.
The victim in this case wasn’t a minor, but would you want your kids around a guy capable of sexually harassing a young woman? Would you leave your school district under the guidance of administrators who failed to inform you of the sexual harassment and continued to trust your children in the hands of the perpetrator?
I haven’t been a resident of Lake Forest for years but I don’t want its legacy to be one of sexual harassment and lack of accountability. I want to remember the community where I was raised and educated, as an inspiration and backdrop to literary and artistic greats. Years from now I want people to recall that the superintendent and board members did the right thing to protect their community and children in a year when so many other schools and administrators hid behind their own guilt.
Courtney Rowe, once a former Boulder resident, is completing her M.S. in Policy Studies at DePaul University in Chicago with a focus on the global protection and security of women and children. The National Defense University Press recently published her book chapter ‘The Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers” in The Nexus of Force.
She loves giving back to her global and local community and recently became of Representative for MissRepresentation.Org. Aside from her work, her passions include her amazing family and friends, traveling and coffee.