Teacher fired for blowing the whistle on illegal strip search of 14-year-old girls at Chicago charter school

Could there be a cover-up between the Chicago Public Schools and one of its controversial charter schools?

At issue is what action CPS will take against officials of the Aspira Charter Schools because they strip searched three students nearly one year ago.

The CPS law department completed its investigation into allegations that the Aspira Charter Schools strip searched students in clear violation of school board policy. Yet CPS refuses to release the report to the public or take action as this issue of Substance went to press.

The investigation findings have been forwarded to Aspira, who refuse to comment on the situation.

“We do not have any further comments at this time beyond saying that we have looked thoroughly into the allegations that were offered,” Josh Edelman, Executive Officer of the Office of New Schools, wrote in an -mail to Meg Sullivan. Sullivan is the former Aspira teacher who confronted the Chicago Board of Education in October after she found out three of her students had been strip searched when school officials were looking for a cigarette lighter that had allegedly been used to start a fire.

Sullivan is now trying to get a copy of the report and has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Board of Education. However, the Board’s FOIA officer told Sullivan that due to the sensitive matter of the investigation, her request has been denied, Sullivan told Substance. Sullivan said that she is planning to take further action by contacting the CPS Inspector General’s office.

“I was told by Rufus Williams (President of the Board of Education) that these allegations were very serious,” Sullivan said. “An investigator then came out the next day to the Aspira school and confirmed all my allegations. However, they will not release this report.”

To add to Aspira’s possible difficulties, some of the parents of the three girls who were strip searched said they were planning to sue the multi-million dollar charter school operator.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the strip search was illegal under Illinois law. The parents, who have asked to remain anonymous, are reportedly trying to contact a lawyer who helped win a class-action suit against the Chicago Police Department for strip searching young women for misdemeanors and traffic violations more than 25 years ago when Mayor Richard Daley was the State’s Attorney. The ACLU helped win the case in which it was estimated that up to 10,000 women had been illegally strip searched.

Sullivan, who taught at the Aspira Charter High School, was fired last summer after she blew the whistle on Aspira for violations that included strip searching three female students, changing student grades without teacher notification, erasing attendance records (which compromised data as accountability benchmarks), and promoting a revolving door of administrators, students and teachers that has led to increased instability in the school.

According to Sullivan, on December 18 of last year, several students started a fire in the boy’s bathroom. Sullivan said students were taken into the office, denied their rights to call their parents and were questioned about who started the fire. After it was determined who started the fire, a search began for the lighter, Sullivan said. In the search of the missing lighter, Aspira Chief Instructional Officer Missy Ravid ordered three girls to be strip searched by a female security guard, she said.

“They were ordered to go into the bathroom with the female guard, pull down their pants — including their underwear — and cough, in case the students put the lighter in their vaginal cavity,” said Sullivan, reporting what she had been told by the students. She added that the strip search was conducted after it was determined who started the fire, the fire was put out, and the danger was over. According to the students, the trash can where the lighter was allegedly thrown was never searched, Sullivan said.

Ravid and Principal Jose Velazquez, who questioned the students who were strip searched, have been fired, Sullivan said. Ravid and Velazquez were two of the top three paid Aspira employees, according to Aspira’s IRS tax filing report.

Strip search has always been a very controversial topic, especially among students. According to the Chicago Public Schools Policy Manual: “An individualized search should be no more intrusive than is necessary. If the school official reasonably suspects that a students has a weapon in his or her possession, a simple ‘pat-down’ search should be adequate; if there is reason to suspect that a student has drugs on his or her person the search necessitated by such suspicion may require a more thorough ‘pat-down’, or the emptying of pockets and the removal of coats, jackets, shoes, and/or socks. If the school officials conducting the search determine removal of any other items of clothing is necessary in order to facilitate a more thorough search, the school officials should contact the Law Dept. before proceeding with such a search. Under no circumstances are school officials authorized by the policy to conduct body-cavity searches.”

However, according to the CPS Law Deparment, charter schools are exempt from the Board of Education policy. Charter schools are subject to less oversight than traditional schools.

“Charter Schools are not under the obligation to follow our policies,” said Dr. Adrienne Scherenzil-Curry, the Policy and Ethics Advisor to CPS. But she added that Charter schools must follow Illinois state law on the procedures for search and seizure.

The Missouri law, similar to Illinois, states that “no employee of or volunteer at any public school or charter school within this state shall perform a strip search ... of any student of any such school. However, strip searches may be conducted by, or under the authority of, a commissioned law enforcement officer.”

Sullivan said the incident took place on a day she did not come to school.

“One of the students who was strip searched had to leave the room in tears as the class discussed what happened,” she said. “All three girls were traumatized by what happened.”

One parent immediately removed her daughter from the school after the strip search incident, Sullivan said. The parent was further dismayed to find that her daughter’s credits wouldn’t transfer to other CPS schools, Sullivan said. “The mother recalled having a very weird conversation with Principal Velazquez (who was fired) who told her that while her daughter is in school, they can do what they want with her,” Sullivan added.

Aspira, a controversial non-profit organization, is no stranger to lawsuits. One former teacher who was fired because of trumped up charges settled out of court. Sullivan has filed a complaint for retaliatory discharge for blowing the whistle on Aspira and is reportedly near a settlement.

Nonetheless, Aspira continues to acquire more charter schools despite the lawsuits and complaints from students, parents and teachers about misconduct. A group of concerned parents at the middle school started a blog two years ago that outlined a number of allegations including poor security, hostile conditions and deceptive advertising. Aspira currently operates the Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Charter School, the Aspira Haugen Middle Charter School, the Antonio Pantoja High School campus and the Aspira Early College Charter High School.

One suburban principal said common protocol for conducting a strip search would include placing boys and girls in separate rooms to be searched by a police officer of the same gender, with a witness.

“If I felt that a student would need to strip down to their undergarments, I would contact the parent and superintendent prior to conducting the search,” he said, preferring not to be named. “It would involve the SRO (School Resource Officer). The jurisdiction of a SRO would allow greater flexibility than the actual police. If I turned it over to the police, then I would be transferring complete jurisdiction to them and limit school discretion. The benefit of having a SRO is that he is an actual police officer who works for the school district, as well. It is my belief that a body cavity type of search is certainly the most intrusive and I would not feel comfortable conducting one.”

The principal at a Chicago northside high school stood speechless, shaking her head in disbelief, when told that Aspira had strip searched its students.

“I just can’t believe it,” said the principal, who is familiar with the charter school operator, and asked to remain anonymous in Substance. “You never do something like this. It’s unbelievable.”

“Charter Schools are not under the obligation to follow our policies,” said Dr. Adrienne Scherenzil-Curry, the Policy and Ethics Advisor to CPS. But she added that Charter schools must follow Illinois state law on the procedures for search and seizure. 


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