An appeals court has sided with a former Streator High School guidance counselor fired for failing to immediately turn in ex-teacher Rylee VanMelkebeke, who later was convicted of sexually assaulting a student.
On Friday, the Third District Appellate Court overruled the Streator High School board, which had dismissed Lissa Small for not immediately reporting an allegation of sexual contact between VanMelkebeke and a female student.
Though the allegation turned out to be true – VanMelkebeke pleaded guilty in 2015 and served part of a seven-year sentence – justices decided in a 2-1 ruling Small initially had grounds to think it an unsubstantiated rumor and to try to verify it before contacting the Department of Children and Family Services.
“Small had noted that she worked in an environment in which such rumors were not uncommon,” wrote Justice Mary McDade. “In fact, a fabricated rumor regarding [VanMelkebeke] was circulated during the investigation into allegedly inappropriate contact between a different employee and a different student.
“Even assuming that Small abrogated her duties in the manner in which she responded to [the whistleblower], she was presented with an unsubstantiated rumor – hearsay – from a student who had a motive to lie,” McDade wrote. “[Small] had attempted to report unsubstantiated rumors to DCFS in the past and was told that such reports would not be accepted. She was aware that she had to undertake efforts to substantiate [the] hearsay before a report would be accepted.”
The majority justices also decided Streator High’s policy could have been clearer and Small’s case “does not fit neatly within the parameters of the applicable law.”
The decision was not unanimous, however. Justice John L. Hauptman dissented and said the board was justified in concluding Small should have immediately reported the allegation against VanMelkebeke.
“It is certainly conceivable that Small’s conduct contributed to the community’s loss of faith in defendants’ ability to safeguard students by timely addressing such delicate issues,” Hauptman wrote. “Indeed, in its decision, the Board referenced the coverage of RV’s abuse in the local news and on social media.”
Small did not return a message seeking comment left with her attorney, James P. Baker of Springfield, who said he would advise his client not to comment. Messages left with the school superintendent and with the board’s attorney were not returned. Another party to the litigation, Liberty Mutual Insurance, said it does not publicly discuss litigation.