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Thursday, May 8, 2014 01:33 pm

Accused kept job despite concerns

Union defended former teacher

Steven R. Battles, now facing charges of sexually assaulting a boy, was a teacher at four Springfield public schools before he was terminated.

 

A former Springfield teacher charged with sexually assaulting a boy more than a decade ago remains in limbo more than three years after criminal charges were filed and nearly five years after he was fired for touching and otherwise contacting kids in ways that alarmed district officials.

Steven R. Battles, who worked at four elementary and middle schools during a career at Springfield School District 186 that spanned nearly 17 years, is appealing his 2009 termination while criminal charges remain pending. Charges of aggravated sexual abuse and sexual assault were filed after the boy told his mother that Battles had molested him between 1999 and 2002, according to a State Journal-Register story published in 2011, when the former teacher was arrested.

Battles declined comment after a recent court appearance. Sheryl Essenburg, assistant state’s attorney who is handling the prosecution, said that a plea bargain is possible. The case has lasted more than three years because Battles switched lawyers, she said.

“I’m very comfortable with the strength of our case,” Essenburg said. “If we can’t work out a plea, I would hope we would try it fairly promptly.”

James Elmore, Battles’ attorney in the criminal case, could not be reached for comment.

Details on the case are murky because court files have been impounded by Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Graves, meaning that the public cannot see any documents connected with the ongoing prosecution. Battles sued the alleged victim for defamation in 2011, but files in that case have also apparently been impounded, and no records associated with the lawsuit appear on the public court docket. A source confirmed, however, that the case was dismissed last year by former Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Leo Zappa, who has retired.

The school district has refused to release investigative files compiled in 2005 and 2009 when Battles, while still working as a teacher, was accused of a litany of questionable behavior that included giving students back rubs, talking to kids about their sexual experiences and his own, telephoning children and giving them money and other gifts. In an April 25 letter to Illinois Times, Julie Hammers, secretary to the school board, wrote that the district won’t release the files because they are being used to defend the dismissal of Battles, who has appealed his 2009 termination.

Summary documents based on the investigative files show that Battles was warned, then suspended for inappropriate contact with kids before he was ultimately fired after district officials found that inappropriate conduct had continued.

While a teacher at Butler Elementary School, where he taught fourth, fifth and sixth grades from 2000 through 2004, Battles was warned by a principal that he should not allow students to sit on his lap, according to district records. In 2005, while a resource teacher at Washington Middle School, Battles was seen giving back rubs to male students in the school library, according to district files.

In addition to giving back rubs to students, Battles in 2005 ignored a request from parents of a student who did not want their son “hanging out” in the school library when the boy wasn’t with his class, according to district files. Despite the request, Battles “frequently” spent time in the library with the boy, listening to music, talking and playing games, according to district records. Battles had also been giving male students as much as $50 on their birthdays, the district found, and when administrators raised concerns, Battles said that it was his money and he could do whatever he wished with it.

Also in 2005, parents of a Washington Middle School student reported that Battles had been calling their son at home and on his cell phone. At least one call was made after Battles was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into other allegations of improper behavior. Battles acknowledged that a different student had called him at home more than a dozen times, according to district files.

“Battles reported to the administration that he was very good friends with some of these students and wanted to maintain contact with them,” district officials wrote in a summary document.

Battles also talked about sex with Washington Middle School students, the district concluded in 2005, but exactly what was discussed isn’t clear from district files.

“Battles acknowledges engaging in discussions regarding a weekend sexual episode of a middle school student and reported aspects of his own sex life to students,” district officials wrote in a summary document. “Battles engaged in discussions regarding sexual preference with students.”

The school board determined that the incidents at Washington Middle School were “exceedingly deficient judgment on the part of an experienced teacher,” according to district files. In 2005 Battles was suspended for 10 days, but the suspension was reduced to seven days after Battles filed a grievance with the help of the Springfield Education Association. He didn’t return to Washington Middle School but was instead transferred to Jefferson Middle School for the 2005-2006 school year.

It’s not clear why the union went to bat for a teacher who’d been warned about allowing children to sit in his lap, then went on to talk about sex with kids and gave them back rubs and money. Carolyn Sloan, director of the union that represents Springfield teachers, did not return phone calls.

It is difficult to fire a teacher, according to Lorilea Buerkett, an attorney for the district. School districts must give second chances if whatever misconduct has occurred can be remedied and there isn’t proof of harm to either kids or the district, she said.

“Tenure affords rights,” Buerkett explains. “The courts have enforced those rights over time – they’ve been very strong about it. So, you have to have a level of conduct that sometimes seems more serious than a layperson would expect. … People are really surprised by how many steps you have to go through.”

It’s not clear from district files whether school officials reported the back rubs, telephone calls and discussions of sex to the state Department of Children and Family Services. Ellyn Bullock, a Champaign attorney who has sued the McLean School District for not reporting sexual misconduct by a teacher who went on to molest kids in Urbana, says that she believes that back rubs and other misconduct by Battles in 2005 should have been reported to the state. She said she isn’t surprised that the union helped Battles reduce the length of his 2005 suspension.

“The union always takes that (position),” Bullock said. “It has come up with this bizarre, overriding policy of protecting the teacher at the expense of the kids.”

Buerkett said it isn’t clear whether the district had a duty to report the 2005 incidents to the state. School districts are required to report cases of abuse or cases that put kids at risk of abuse, and inappropriate touching would qualify, Buerkett said. While district files describe Battles’ physical contact with kids in 2005 as “inappropriate,” the issue is whether such contact is inappropriate under the law.

“That’s really the question, isn’t it?” Buerkett said.

One year after battles was transferred to Jefferson Middle School from Washington, the school board appointed Battles to the position of yearbook instructor in the fall of 2006, a job that came with added annual pay of more than $2,000. Battles was fired in June 2009, after the district concluded that he had again been touching and telephoning male students and giving them gifts.

One student complained that Battles had tried to hug him and touch him on the leg, according to district files. The district also found that he had given a student an iPod worth several hundred dollars with an inscription that falsely stated the music player was a reward for performing well on a standardized test. Another student said that Battles had given him a pair of expensive shoes, and Battles acknowledged giving money to other students as rewards or when they lacked lunch money, according to district files. Battles had also exchanged telephone calls with a student 120 times in a two-month period, with conversations lasting as long as 30 minutes, the district found.

Battles has appealed his termination without the assistance of the teachers’ union. The appeal is on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case. If Battles is convicted of a sex offense involving a child, he would be barred from working as a teacher, and so his appeal would be moot.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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