School administrators in McLean County can be sued for failing to warn a neighboring district that it was about to hire a teacher who has a record of sexual misconduct with students, a divided Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Teacher Jon White went on to abuse at least eight girls in his new job.
The case echoes the Penn State scandal, in which university officials had reason to believe a former coach was abusing minors but did not take action to stop it.
In McLean County, administrators at Unit District No. 5 had gotten multiple complaints about White and suspended him twice, for viewing pornography on a school computer and for making suggestive remarks to a fifth-grader. White was forced to resign.
But the district wrote a positive letter of recommendation for White and when he applied for a teaching job in Urbana, they filled out an employment verification form without making clear he left his job before the end of the school year.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, said the information that White did not finish the year might have been a red flag that would have triggered more scrutiny by the Urbana school district. It said the students who were later abused by White can proceed with a lawsuit against the McLean County officials.
But the ruling did not say school officials have a broad duty to warn other schools about potentially dangerous teachers. In this case, it was the action of providing false, or at least incomplete, information on the employment verification form that opens the door to a lawsuit.
Even that narrow ruling “delighted” Ellyn Bullock, a Champaign attorney representing four of White’s victims.
“The court did what it had to do. It said you have to report,” Bullock said. “I think that will be enough of a statement to tell school districts they can’t do this.”
White pleaded guilty in 2008 to molesting girls, often with a “taste game” in which the girls were blindfolded and had to taste various toppings placed on what they thought was a banana. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison for molesting eight girls in Urbana and 12 years for his actions with two girls in Bloomington-Normal.
The lawsuit claims the Urbana girls could have been spared any harm if officials at White’s previous job had spoken up about his behavior.
Attorneys for the school officials said Urbana hired White without contacting them and before they ever wrote a letter of recommendation. They also argued this situation does not meet the limited circumstances under which public officials can be sued for their performance in office.