Faith’s Law aims to shape response, prevent sexual abuse in DeKalb District 428 schools

Under Faith’s Law, DeKalb schools update code of conduct policy to comply with state requirements

Director of Human Resources Deetra Sallis (left) and Director of Student Services Kyle Gerdes (right) speak at the Aug. 1, 2023 DeKalb School District 428 school board meeting.

DeKALBDeKalb schools recently updated an existing policy on the books that holds teachers or staff members liable in situations of sexual misconduct, falling in line with statewide legislation that impacts all Illinois schools.

District officials said the newly updated employee code of conduct is meant to better define the type of things and behaviors that fall under misconduct.

Tania Haigh, founder and executive director of KIDS TOO – a nonprofit that advocates for protections for children against child sex abusers and predators online and in person – said she is pleased that the second part of Faith’s Law went into effect in July. The first part of the legislation went into effect in December 2021.

Haigh said the law helps to put pressure on educators and others to take allegations seriously.

“Teachers have always been mandated reporters. But mandated reporter training is more about looking out for symptoms of the child in case something is happening at the home, for example,” Haigh said. “Teachers up until now have not been trained to look for their peer teachers to look for predatory tactics. … Staff, they’re being trained to look for grooming tactics from their peers. So, it’s complicated. And then on top of that, union reps are also their peers within the same building. So, it’s a very layered, complicated issue because the same colleagues that can call them out on being [and] having grooming tactics are the ones that might be representing them when they are being called up on misconduct.”

Faith’s Law was signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on Dec. 3, 2021. It was named after Faith Colson, who graduated from an Illinois high school in the early 2000s, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Colson was sexually abused by a teacher at her school and later learned that multiple adults within the high school had suspected the teacher’s inappropriate behavior toward her but did not take action, according to ISBE. Colson pushed for legislation, which later became Faith’s Law.

The first portion of the legislation established in 2021 the definition of sexual misconduct and grooming within school codes and outlines employee code of conducts, along with ISBE-created guidelines for all schools to follow. The second part of the law, which went into effect July 1, focused on preventing sexual misconduct in schools, including mandating employment history reviews, parent communication and more.

One former district employee was at the center of such allegations this past spring.

Former Huntley Middle School student teacher Quinyatta Hutchinson, 23, faces aggravated criminal sexual abuse and grooming charges. He’s accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old student on school grounds, after he allegedly groomed the teen for months, according to DeKalb County court records.

Hutchinson was placed on leave and then fired from the school district April 14. Hutchinson also had an offer on a math teaching position at Clinton Rosette Middle School for the 2023-24 school year rescinded by the district. His criminal charges remain pending, and he’s next set to appear in front of a judge for a status hearing at 8:45 a.m. Sept. 19.

School District 428, Huntley Middle School sign

Haigh said school districts should be held accountable for teachers or staff who engage in grooming or sexual misconduct with students, regardless of their age.

As a mother and an advocate for Faith’s Law, Haigh said she knows all too well that there will be some parents who question how a loophole could have existed.

Under Illinois law, the age of consent is 17.

“I would say that, in general terms, most parents that we’ve talked to are surprised when things [like] that aren’t already a law,” Haigh said. “Most parents aren’t in the know about what kind of protections are missing for their children everyday until the victim has to survive something like this. A parent has to be next to a survivor who’s gone through all this, and the pain is visceral. A lot of parents want to just move on with life, just like anybody when they survive from something so painful. So it takes a lot for something like this to aggravate in a way to make change. I will just say that I wasn’t surprised because I’m in the day-to-day of all this activity. There’s more that we want to continue to surface that needs to be raised to all parents to everyone.”

Deetra Sallis, the district’s director of human resources, said the new language added to the employee code of conduct goes a long ways toward helping the district comply with Faith’s Law.

“It adds additional language that is required by Faith’s Law,” Sallis said. “It’s more explicit language, and I don’t mean explicit in a negative way. We’re calling out more stuff.”

The district already had a framework and methods in place for dealing with employee misconduct prior to the recent update made to comply with Faith’s Law, officials said.

Kyle Gerdes, the district’s director of student services, said he doesn’t anticipate a large shift in how DeKalb schools will operate based on the board’s decision to update the employee code of conduct policy.

“I don’t think it necessarily totally changes how we do things in the district, meaning that we have been for years doing sexual abuse trainings with students across all grade levels obviously differentiated based on developmental level,” Gerdes said. “We’ve been sharing information with parents about what we’re discussing in school related to that topic. We’ve been training staff.”

Sallis said the recent update to the district’s employee code of conduct policy will not change the way the district handles its employee review or hiring processes.

“The policy is what all our staff members have to abide by,” Sallis said. “If there’s a violation, then we go back and reference that policy to go through the disciplinary process. Now there’s different components to Faith’s Law, one being that there are disclosures informationally I have to get from other school districts that a candidate worked in in order to ensure that they have not had issues of sexual misconduct and/or other types of misconduct with staff or students.”

When asked if the district’s newly updated employee code of conduct policy could better prevent loophole-type scenarios such as Hutchinson’s from occurring in the future, Sallis said it could.

“I won’t talk about any specific person, but for any employee, because of the disclosure and information that we have to collect from other districts, based on the information that may be disclosed, it could prevent someone from working in a district, or they would have to provide more detailed explanation of what may have happened,” Sallis said. “But again, [I’m] not speaking about any particular person. … Just because they’ve offended, it does not mean that they are always a repeat offender.”

Haigh said she views actions taken by Illinois schools to comply with the newly adopted Faith’s Law as a win-win all around.

“As an advocate for children and parent voices, I would say that this is an incredibly symbolic piece of legislation,” Haigh said. “It is really tough to add sexual misconduct within the school code and then expand the definition of grooming in the criminal code. It shows, to me, that our legislators are learning more about the nuances with this tough issue and that parents and survivors are being heard that children need to be protected from predatory adults.”

This story was edited at 2:44 p.m. Aug. 31, 2023 to correct an earlier version which misstated the position Quinyatta Hutchinson held in District 428. He was a student teacher at Huntley Middle School.

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