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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 12:01 am

A pedophile’s playpen

Teacher kept job despite suspicions

Steven R. Battles
PHOTO COURTESY SANGAMON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

 

When Springfield police called Steven R. Battles in 2010 to ask about his contact with boys, he asked an odd question.

“I advised him it was in reference to criminal sexual abuse,” Detective Paula Morrow wrote in her report. “Battles then asked if it was a ‘recent’ one.”

It was, perhaps, an apt inquiry. Battles, who pleaded guilty on Monday to molesting a boy who wasn’t his student more than 10 years ago, had sex with at least one student and raised plenty of suspicions while working as a teacher in Springfield School District 186, according to files released Tuesday by the Springfield Police Department in response to a lawsuit filed by Illinois Times.

Police files show that there was no shortage of warning signs. Battles crossed the line with at least one student, now in his 30s, who says that he was his teacher’s sex partner two decades ago when he was just 12 years old.

The former student told police in February that he and Battles had a sexual relationship in the mid-1990s while Battles was his teacher at Iles Elementary School. During the relationship that lasted at least four months, Battles kept a photograph of the boy on a mantle in his home. The former student told police that one of Battles’ children once opened a bedroom door while he and Battles were engaged in a sex act. The former student also said that he believed that Battles’ wife was suspicious.

The former student told police that his family doesn’t know what happened and he didn’t want charges filed for fear of upsetting his mother. He had agreed to testify had Battles’ case gone to trial, but his testimony became unnecessary when the case ended with Battles’ guilty plea and seven-year prison sentence this week.

Battles worked at four schools during his 17-year career with the district, and his suspicious behavior toward boys was obvious to many. In 2003, students at Butler Elementary School told police that Battles touched boys in inappropriate ways, never sat near girls in his classroom and told sexual jokes to his class of fifth-graders.

During the 2003 investigation, Battles admitted hugging students and rubbing a boy on his stomach and telling a joke to his class that involved a man whose penis was amputated. He told officers that he never sat near girls because girls didn’t ask.

“When I would sit next to a student I might put my arm around them,” Battles told police in 2003. “I might pat them on the shoulder. If I was sitting next to them, our knees might touch.”

The 2003 investigation was closed when boys whom Battles had allegedly touched in inappropriate ways denied any such contact. Aside from being told that he should not allow students to sit on his lap, Battles’ personnel file shows that he was not disciplined while at Butler. Both Kathi Lee, then the principal at Butler and now the principal at Lawrence Education Center, and a school nurse who reported Battles to authorities after hearing accounts from students, were aware of allegations, police files show.

Lorilea Buerkett, attorney for District 186, said that she doesn’t know why Battles didn’t receive anything more than a verbal warning to not allow children on his lap. She said that the district wasn’t aware of the penis joke told to a class of fifth-graders, which she deemed inappropriate.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” Buerkett said.

Prosecutors knew of the 2003 investigation but filed no charges.

“It didn’t result in prosecution at the time because we simply didn’t have the evidence,” says Sheryl Essenburg, an assistant state’s attorney who handles sex crimes. “We prosecute crimes, not aggravated inappropriateness.”

From Butler, Battles moved to Washington Middle School, where he became a librarian and soon landed in trouble for giving back rubs to male students, discussing sex with kids, giving gifts to boys and telephoning students outside school. His conduct prompted a 10-day suspension in 2005 that was reduced to seven days after he filed a grievance with the help of the Springfield Education Association, the union that represents teachers.

Battles’ behavior at Washington was so alarming that Officer Barb Wood, the police officer assigned to the school, told investigators in 2010 that she did not believe that he should be around children. Susan Palmer, the principal, told police that she believed Battles should have been terminated but the decision was not hers.

Wood told investigators that Battles would have lunches in the library. At first, all students were invited, then only boys, then only a specific group of boys.

“(Wood) said teachers would…notice the lights in the library would be dimmed when Battles was in the library with these boys and occasionally the door would be locked,” Morrow wrote in her report prepared as part of the case that ended with Battles’ conviction.

Battles’ behavior at Washington prompted complaints from parents. At least one wasn’t convinced that the district took the situation seriously when she reported that Battles had been calling her son at night and giving him cash gifts of as much as $100 and pulling him out of class so he could come to the library.

“[Redacted] said she notified the school but felt like she got pushed to the back burner and the complaint was not a priority,” Morrow wrote in a 2010 report.

Buerkett noted that the incidents with the boy whose mother complained were included in a “notice to remedy” that was issued to Battles in 2005. Under state law, teachers who receive notices to remedy must cease whatever conduct prompted the notice or face discipline up to and including termination. Battles’ conduct at Washington, Buerkett said, was not sufficient grounds for firing.

“They’re going to get reinstated if you don’t follow the steps,” Buerkett said. “If you really want to dismiss a teacher, you must follow these steps. And that is what the district did.”

Battles was transferred from Washington to Jefferson Middle School for the 2005-06 school year. His duties weren’t clear from district or police files, but he was appointed to the position of yearbook instructor at Jefferson in 2006, a job that came with $2,000 in added annual pay. He was terminated in 2009, after a boy reported that Battles had tried to touch him on the leg. Battles had also been giving gifts to boys and talking to them via telephone outside of class, the district found.

Buerkett said that she did not know why the district made Battles a yearbook instructor at Jefferson in light of his behavior at Washington and Butler.

Battles was persistent, according to a former Jefferson student interviewed by police in 2010, one year after Battles was fired for engaging in the same kind of behavior that had prompted his suspension at Washington.

The former Jefferson student said that Battles would give him rides to his bus stop, but he didn’t allow Battles to take him home because he did not want Battles to know where he lived. Battles once asked him why he was always hanging out with girls, then suddenly asked him if he was gay. Battles would hug him so frequently that classmates noticed, the former student said. Battles talked about sex and gave the boy an iPod and offered pornographic magazines and told the boy that he loved him, according to a report prepared by Detective Morrow. When Battles put his hand on the boy’s leg and the boy told him to stop, Battles asked “Why? Don’t you like me?” The detective called the state Department of Children and Family Services at the conclusion of her interview because she determined that the state agency charged with protecting children had not investigated contact between Battles and the former student, although Battles had apparently complained to DCFS about the boy’s parents, who would not allow their son to talk to Battles on the phone outside school.

Battles’ path to prison began four years ago, when a man now in his 20s told police that he was victimized between 1999 and 2002 while spending nights at Battles’ home. It started when the boy, a friend of Battles’ children, was 10 and ended when he was 12. When the victim confronted Battles in 2010, saying that he was owed an apology, Battles gave him a letter in which he apologizes for “mistreating” the boy turned man who had found the courage to confront his abuser.

“God has forgiven me, but I am asking you to forgive me and let us put all this in the past,” Battles wrote. “I do want to be a father to you, and perhaps perform your wedding ceremony one day. … I love you with the love of the Lord.”

It did not go over well.

“(The) victim read the letter and said that he felt like punching Battles in the face, but he did not,” Morrow wrote in her report.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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