Documents: District 155 teacher returned to classroom after leave before felony grooming charge

Community High School District 155 officials knew in August about a police investigation into allegations against a Crystal Lake Central High School teacher later charged with felony grooming of an underage girl for sex, according to a Northwest Herald probe.

After a two-week internal investigation in the school district’s human resources department, 48-year-old Matthew R. Fralick was allowed to return to his high school classroom.

The Northwest Herald used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain hundreds of emails between District 155 employees, and a timeline of events that unfolded before Fralick’s Feb. 1 arrest was uncovered.

The correspondence revealed that District 155 officials put Fralick on paid leave twice and did not notify parents about the allegations against him until months later in a late-night email sent hours after the teacher turned himself in to police.

Who knew what,
and when did they know?

Fralick now stands accused of felony charges that he used a chat website to lure a teen girl across state lines to perform a sexual act, according to a criminal complaint. McHenry police said the incident occurred April 15 in McHenry.

“At this time, the arrest centers on alleged conduct outside of school and does not involve District 155 students or staff members,” District 155 communications director Shannon Podzimek said in a statement on the night of Fralick’s arrest. “We have no reason to suspect that any student or staff member in the district has been in any danger at any time.”

In the subsequent weeks, Podzimek and Crystal Lake Central Principal Eric Ernd ignored or declined to answer questions about when Fralick was placed on leave and when the district learned of the allegations.

“If you are approached by media on campus over the weekend, please refer them to Shannon Podzimek, director of communications, at the district office,” said a Feb. 1 letter to staff signed by Ernd and District 155 Superintendent Steve Olson.

In response to the Northwest Herald’s public records request seeking student or faculty complaints filed between Jan. 1, 2017, and Feb. 2, 2019, the district said that no such complaints existed. Podzimek also asked the Northwest Herald to narrow its request for relevant written communication between District 155 employees. A one-year span also was too long, she said.

Reporters narrowed their requests and then filed separate requests to ask for communications sent and received by district staff each month for a one-year span. Although the district’s response included 532 pages of emails that referenced Fralick, it did not include attachments or other forms of written communication, including text messages from district-issued cellphones.

The emails traded between teachers and staff in the months before Fralick’s arrest, however, shine some light on who knew what and when they knew it.

On paid leave

District 155 briefly placed Fralick on leave from Aug. 16 to Aug. 29.

The day before Fralick's return, Jay Sargeant, assistant superintendent of human resources, informed the teacher that they were "unable to substantiate the allegations" against him based on the information they had at the time.

“I attempted to reach you via your cellphone moments ago and left a detailed message regarding your return to work tomorrow, Aug. 30,” Sargeant wrote in an email to Fralick regarding his “return from paid admin leave.” “I encourage you to listen to that voicemail message. We were not able to substantiate the allegations against you based on the information available to us at this time.”

Other school employees knew little about Fralick’s unexpected absence.

“I really have no idea what exactly is going on other than you are out through Monday,” a District 155 staff member wrote Fralick on Aug. 16. “I guess I will find out when the time is appropriate. I got the ninth-hour students on classroom. Are you planning on putting your health lessons on classroom, or do you have any you can provide to me for your sub on Friday and Monday?”

“I was told not to do lesson plans until I get back,” Fralick said.

Four days later, Fralick asked the human resources department for an update.

“At this time we are continuing our investigation,” Sargeant replied Aug. 20. “At some point in the future, we will be in contact with you to arrange for a formal interview. I’m sorry that I cannot be more specific at this time.”

“Is a formal interview always the protocol for situations like these[?]” Fralick asked.

“Every situation is different,” Sargeant said. “I’m not sure there is a ‘normal’ protocol as a result.”

The situation involving an underage girl outside Illinois was reported to Barrington police in April and later turned over to the McHenry Police Department. Crystal Lake Central eventually was notified about the investigation, although it’s unclear when the school was informed.

Months before the investigation of the allegations turned to criminal charges and landed Fralick in jail, District 155 welcomed him back to the classroom.

Fralick’s return

On Aug. 29, Sargeant sent Fralick a letter formalizing his return from paid leave.

Although the Northwest Herald requested all written communication between district employees regarding Fralick, District 155 officials did not provide that letter. The Northwest Herald has filed a separate Freedom of Information Act request to obtain that document.

“A copy of this letter will be placed in your personnel file,” Sargeant wrote to Fralick on Aug. 29. “You certainly have the right to write a rebuttal.”

Sargeant instructed Fralick to pick up his school ID, keys and new computer in the principal’s office the next morning.

“Should you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me directly,” Sargeant wrote. “Thank you for your cooperation throughout this process.”

On the same day, Sargeant asked school staff to prepare equipment for Fralick.

“Could I possibly request that the new computer for Matt Fralick be ready before 3 p.m. today?” Sargeant wrote. “I’d like him to have it available when he arrives at work tomorrow ...”

In the classroom

Fralick resumed his classroom duties throughout the fall.

He contributed to conversations and collaborated with colleagues. He continued to teach driver’s education and health for the remainder of the semester.

Syllabus documents show that Fralick entered the fall semester with a health education curriculum, including a unit on human sexuality. Topics included anatomy, reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and relationships.

On Oct. 12, about a month after Fralick returned from his first paid administrative leave, he wrote an email to two fellow teachers to thank them for helping him develop an “abstinence and birth control lesson.”

“I really appreciate you taking the time to help with it,” Fralick wrote. “I’m going to use elements of it for other lessons. The lesson went great and evolved throughout the day. Was fun to do something in a different way. Thank you again.”

In December, Fralick went on leave again, but this time, he would not return.

Email exchanges between district staff and Crystal Lake Central employees in late December showed employees frantically making arrangements to cover Fralick’s course load in the second semester, since he would not be returning.

Sometime between his leave in August and his return weeks later, Fralick was issued a new laptop, which district officials were unable to recover and provide for the teacher’s second-semester long-term substitute.

Several emails indicated that the substitute only would be available until March 1. Fralick remained on paid leave Thursday morning.

Fralick remains silent

Approached after his first court appearance Feb. 15, Fralick declined to comment on the charges or say when the district placed him on leave.

A search warrant that police used to inspect Fralick’s property in connection with the accusations is sealed from public access, said Randi Freese, chief of the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Criminal Division.

It’s not uncommon for documents pertaining to criminal investigations – particularly those involving a minor – to be sealed or impounded, at least temporarily. The McHenry Police Department previously denied a similar request seeking police reports and affidavits regarding Fralick’s arrest.

The Northwest Herald tried to obtain a copy of the warrant through a Freedom of Information Act request, which McHenry police denied Wednesday, citing an ongoing investigation.

From 2010 to 2014, Fralick worked as the head football coach at Crystal Lake Central. He also formerly acted as the assistant coach for the football, girls basketball and boys golf teams.

According to an email from the school’s athletic director, Fralick resigned as assistant girls basketball coach on the morning of June 13, which was in the middle of the school’s June 4 to 28 varsity girls basketball camp. During summer camp, teams typically practice in the morning and play games at night.

The driver’s education and health teacher was making $102,026 in a base salary with $4,807 in retirement enhancements and $15,350 in other benefits from the district, according to the district’s salary and benefits report dated Aug. 22.

Fralick is scheduled to make his next court appearance March 29.

His attorney, Albert Wysoki, could not be reached for comment.

‘88 hours of work’

Podzimek, one of two communications staffers in the district who handle FOIA requests, did not return a phone call regarding the district’s response, but she sent a statement.

“District 155 employees reviewed thousands of emails to comply with the Northwest Herald’s 11 FOIA requests, which resulted in more than 88 hours of work acquiring and reviewing documents,” the statement read. “D-155 had multiple phone conversations with the Northwest Herald and invited the Northwest Herald to narrow its request for documents, which prompted the Northwest Herald to file 11 individual FOIA requests in one day, and the district fully responded to all of them.

“D-155 is committed to transparency and providing the public with responsive documents while protecting student information. The district sent more than 500 responsive documents to comply with the Northwest Herald’s requests. D-155 will comply with additional FOIA requests it received from the Northwest Herald that clarify original requests.”

The statement did not address student safety after Fralick’s return.