Monday, June 13, 2005

Winnetka Schools Superintendent’s lack of transparency, Part 1

Tip O’Neill, who was once upon a time Speaker of the House, said “all politics is ultimately local.” Tip should have added “there is nothing more local than your local public school ” So, there is a bit of politics among public school educators, administrators, their school boards and the communities all of those folks are supposed to serve: parents, residents and of course the kids in the communities.

Moreover, although discussing this issue, below, and in prior links, cited below, with reference to Winnetka, I am sure that there are other instances that repeat the Winnetka pattern throughout the Chicago Metropolitan area, the state of Illinois and this great land of ours. School Administrators’ and school boards’ arrogance and reluctance to conduct their operations with transparency is a pervasive problem but that general issue is beyond the scope of this post. I mention this only so that my gentle readers will not dismiss the discussion of issues, below, as a “Winnetka, or North Shore” problem.

Regarding the Winnetka School Board and its Superintendent, Dr. van der Bogert, I have written here about the community’s loss of trust in its School Board and Supt., here about the wrong shared mindset among School Board members and school administrators, here about questions the community has for Winnetka’s new Greeley School Principal that they hoped to have answered at his trial that settled on June 2, 2005, the morning before Mr. Dorken scheduled testimony and here about the Winnetka School Board, its Supt. Rebecca van der Bogert and its new Greeley School principal, Kevin Dorken being saved by the bell [a two million dollar payment by the insurance consortium on behalf of defendants Glenview School District 34 and Glenview school teacher/administrative intern Kevin Dorken to the family of Casey Fish to settle the lawsuit ], and not having to deal with the answers that the trial testimony would bring.

In defending their lawsuit, the Glenview School District and Kevin Dorken, contend, of course, that neither was negligent in their operation of the school district or supervision of students, including the sixth grader, Casey Fish, who died on June 4, 1999. Nor does the District concede that its willingness to pay two million dollars to settle the trial in mid-stream is an admission of guilt by either of the defendants to the lawsuit.

Dr. van der Bogert, the Winnetka Public Schools Supt., neglected to mention the then upcoming wrongful death trial of Kevin Dorken and the Glenview School District when she recommended Mr. Dorken to the Winnetka School Board and the Winnetka Community. Many and perhaps the majority of parents in the community found the Superintendent’s failure to disclose and lack of transparency shocking, but not the Winnetka School Board.

When it transpired last month that Dr. van der Bogert had failed to disclose what would seem to very relevant information, van der Bogert sought to justify her action by stating she had “obtained [by December 14, 2004] enough information that assured her that there was no negligence on his [Dorken’s] part.” Supt. van der Bogert argued further, “I believe I had sufficient facts that assured me there was no negligence on Kevin’s part.” [written statement transmitted to me that van der Bogert indicated she had read to those attending the Winnetka School Board meeting of May 24, 2005]. Of course, no such facts or information was presented to the community by Dr. van der Bogert. Yet another rejection of transparency by Winnetka’s School Superintendent.

So, what were the “facts,” and “information,” to support Dr. van der Bogert’s conclusion that “there was no negligence on Kevin’s Dorken’s part.” This was, of course, a conclusion that Supt. van der Bogert was able to reach six months before the matter went to trial. Also, counsel for the plaintiff in the wrongful death lawsuit filed against Kevin Dorken, Francis Patrick Murphy, tells me that Supt. van der Bogert never attempted to get any information or facts from him about the Dorken lawsuit.

Supt. van der Bogert, who trumpets her transparency to anyone who will listen, has declined to answer my questions about this issue. So, I sought to speak with other people from whom Dr. van der Bogert might reasonably be expected to try to obtain facts and information.

I started with Tom Dicianni, a named partner with Ancel, Glink, et al, and the counsel for Defendants Glenview School District 34 and Kevin Dorken in the wrongful death lawsuit filed against both. He has not returned my voicemail messages.

Next up on my list was Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Hill, Glenview School District 34’s Superintendent [See here], who I spoke with last Wednesday. Hill is Mr. Dorken’s current boss. Mr. Dorken, Greeley School’s Principal to be, as of last week, was an administrative intern at District 34.
Jeff Berkowitz: I heard that you folks had investigated the incident thoroughly and found no negligence on Kevin Dorken’s part, is that correct?

Dr. Gerald Hill: Yes, that was our findings on the matter and actually, Tom Dicianni, the attorney that was—[that] represented us was a part of that investigation.

Berkowitz: When was that investigation.

Dr. Hill: It probably started shortly after the incident itself and I wasn’t here at the time so I do not know all the details of the—

Berkowitz: You mean there was another superintendent at the time.

Dr. Hill: Yes, it was my predecessor [Hill went on to explain that Dan Johnson was the Superintendent at the time of the incident and Hill’s immediate predecessor, Dorothy Webber started as Supt. of District 34 on July 1, 1999, or almost a month after the death of sixth grader Casey Fish. Hill indicated that both Johnson and Webber now lived out of state, but he didn’t have any idea where specifically. Hill indicated “I would presume both of those superintendents more than likely had a lot to do with the investigation, but I don’t have any first hand knowledge of it.” My follow-up phone call messages to Hill to try to get additional information about the whereabouts of Johnson and Webber were unreturned]

Berkowitz: When did you take over there?

Dr. Hill: I started on July 1, 2004.

Berkowitz: …Was there a written report [of the results of the investigation] and have you seen it?

Dr. Hill: I have not seen the written report.
I met, on a few occasions, with attorney Tom Dicianni and he reviewed the case with me. That would be the extent of my knowledge.

Berkowitz: What do you recall that Mr. Dicianni said about the report?

Dr. Hill: Oh, it’s what he said in the trial.
The District’s defense was that there was proper supervision. And, that it was—well, that’s what the District’s defense was, I’ll leave it at that.

Berkowitz: Did Mr. Dorken tell the teachers, according to Mr. Dicianni, that when he left—did he tell the other two teachers who were staffing the other two stations that he was leaving his station.

Dr. Hill: Anything that I say would be hearsay so I am not going to get into any of those lines of questions because I didn’t hear any of this first hand, so it would be speculative on my part to get into that.

Berkowitz: No, I am asking what did Mr. Dicianni tell YOU.

Dr. Hill: Right.

Berkowitz: That wouldn’t be hearsay. That was what you heard Mr. Dicianni say to you.

Dr. Hill: I am not going to get into all of that, so, if you want to have a conversation with Mr. Dicianni about that, that would be fine.

Berkowitz: Well, I have called Mr. Dicianni, but he hasn’t returned my calls. Well, let me ask you then—Supt. van der Bogert in Winnetka has said that you folks investigated the matter thoroughly and found no negligence. Do you know what the basis would be for her statement? Did she talk with you?

Dr. Hill: It would be conversing with District officials and that was our conclusion. It was the defense presented in the case.

Berkowitz: Did she speak with you specifically?

Dr. Hill: I did not speak with her [Supt. van der Bogert] specifically [about the facts of the case].

Berkowitz: Do you know who she spoke with to get that—

Dr. Hill: It was probably with our public relations person, Mr. Clark.
Berkowitz: You don’t know what Mr. Clark would have based his information on when he spoke with Dr. van der Bogert?

Dr. Hill: And I don’t know who else the Superintendent may have spoken to regarding it [the case] as well.

Berkowitz: But, it wasn’t you.

Dr. Hill: No.

Berkowitz: Do you know if Mr. Dorken did tell the teachers who were involved in this, the other two teachers, that he was leaving his station before he left? Because it is clear from the trial testimony that at the time this occurred, he was in the hall and kids were—

Dr. Hill: Yeah, I don’t know what transpired [sic] in the classroom immediately before, during or after.

Berkowitz: Did you ever ask Kevin Dorken that?

Dr. Hill: No. My involvement with the case was not that part of the investigation. My involvement with the case was preparing with the District’s attorney, Mr. Dicianni—getting an understanding of what the case is— [I] did not get into that level of details, myself—since it occurred way before my tenure.
Berkowitz: The press reported from the trial last week—I think there was testimony that there was a counseling session for Mr. Dorken and the father, perhaps the mother, as well, but at least the father of Casey Fish two days after the death of his sixth grade daughter and during that session—and I think this is the trial testimony—Kevin Dorken confessed that he was out of the room and he started crying, or sobbing—something to that effect, and he [Kevin Dorken] was then escorted out of that counseling session by somebody in the Glenview School District.

Dr. Hill: I have no knowledge of that incident, other than what was said at the trial.

Berkowitz: Right, but does that affect your opinion about this? Do you know why he [Dorken] would be concerned—apparently he was concerned that he wasn’t in the room [when the event started].

Dr. Hill: I don’t know that I—that doesn’t change—that whole testimony, if you will, was never—Mr. Dorken didn’t testify at the trial so I don’t know what he would have said about that.

Berkowitz: But, this is the testimony. So you never asked Kevin what he would have said about that?

Dr. Hill: No, I did not get into those level of details.
My work, in the defense during the case, was working directly with Mr. Dicianni. I wasn’t a party of-- my role during the trial was to work with the attorney regarding the case-- I didn’t get into the level of detail with each individual witness or potential witness. I wasn’t a party to those discussions.

Berkowitz: So, you really don’t have any knowledge as to—personal knowledge—

Dr. Hill: I don’t have any knowledge as to, no I don’t have any direct knowledge on any of that.

Berkowitz: About the incident, or what happened, or even the findings of lack of negligence or negligence, that was all something that was done before you arrived. Is that right?

Dr. Hill: That’s right.

Berkowitz: You’ve never seen the report about that? The written report?

Dr. Hill: I have not.

So, in looking for transparency, where did Dr. van der Bogert obtain, at least six months ago, her “sufficient facts that assured [her] there was no negligence on Kevin’s part.” These facts would have had to have been so strong, so unambiguous, so decisive, so determinative of the issues in a wrongful death action against Kevin Dorken, and of course, in a way so favorable to the new Greeley School Principal Kevin Dorken that Winnetka Supt. van der Bogert chose to withhold it all? including the fact of a wrongful death lawsuit against her chosen principal? Van der Bogert withheld all of that from the School Board and from the Community.

The Dorken/Glenview School District 34 trial has been settled. It would seem she could have told all last December, but now it should especially be the case that Dr. van der Bogert can tell all. She can be transparent. She can engage in full disclosure, with her school Board and the Winnetka Community, at large. Would the good people of various other communities throughout this state and this great land of ours expect full transparency from their School Superintendent and their school board? Would they get it?

So, again, the question for Dr. van der Bogert is: What did she know last December about the death of a sixth grader named Casey Fish and the “facts,” relating to the negligence of Kevin Dorken, or lack thereof? And, how did she know it?

It does not appear that her source in that area of inquiry was Glenview Superintendent and Kevin’s current boss, Dr. Gerald Hill. Will Dr. van der Bogert answer the above questions and tell all, in a public and open dialogue with the Winnetka Community, a community Dr. van der Bogert is proud to call a Community of Learners. What will they learn?

Is it finally the time for Supt. Rebecca van der Bogert, who has been in School District 36 for eleven years, to become fully transparent? Is that the kind of transparency other school districts already have? So many questions, so few answers from van der Bogert, Winnetka Public School District 36 and its Board.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at