Illinois’ Betrayal Bill: Protecting Students from Recurring Violence

Timothy Higus

Associate Editor

Loyola University School of Law, JD 2022

Public Act 101-0531 (“Act”) was signed into law on August 23, 2019. The Act is a step that the Illinois legislature has taken to protect students from recurring violence by school employees. It allows the Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) to suspend an educator’s license if they are charged with crimes listed in Section 21B-80 of the Illinois School Code. If the person is acquitted of that crime, however, they would have their license reinstated. Prior to the enactment of this statute, ISBE had to wait until the conclusion of any criminal proceedings to revoke a teaching license if a teacher was charged with a sex crime or Class X felony. In addition to the change in agency authority, the bill also creates several reporting and policy review requirements that will help protect students from violence and school districts from liability.

The “Betrayed” article

Some have called the Act the “Betrayal” bill, following a Chicago Tribune investigative report titled “Betrayed.” This report highlighted pervasive sexual abuse and assault within Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”), and the district’s failure to protect students from the recurring behavior. This article focused on abuse that continued because of staff members’ non-compliance with mandated reporting laws, insufficient use of criminal background checks, repeated aggressive and condescending victim interviews, and a failure to relay a teacher’s reason for resigning after credible evidence of sexual abuse is found. CPS’s legal department found this credible evidence in more than half of the reported cases between 2011 and 2018, however, CPS did not track child abuse by its employees in a “formal or consistent manner.”

The legislative history

An informational legislative hearing took place on June 20, 2018, where Illinois lawmakers listened graciously to the testimony of two CPS students and demanded answers from CPS officials. Lawmakers heard hours of testimony from ISBE, CPS officials, the Chicago Teacher’s Union, and child welfare services. The lawmakers discussed the absence of Janice Jackson, the CEO of CPS, and the district’s failure to follow through with rules and laws already in place. For example, each teacher is already a mandatory reporter of child assault and neglect, however, the district’s compliance with these laws have failed these students who were repeatedly abused by district employees.

After almost a year of discussion, the final bill was passed by a unanimous Illinois Senate and a unanimously consenting Illinois House at the end of May 2019 and included provisions that were discussed at the June 2018 meeting.  This final bill does not have the full provisions that victim’s advocates were hoping for, partially because of opposition by the Americans for Civil Liberties Union. For example, it is not illegal in Illinois for a teacher to have sexual relations with a student as long as they are 17 years or older. The Illinois Federation of Teachers, along with the Chicago Teacher’s Union, maintained that they are interested in student safety first and foremost but supports legislation that provides due process for both the student and the teacher.

Compliance for school districts

The Act is a broad reconsideration of a number of topics and amends both the School Code and the Personnel Record Review Act. The new authority for ISBE to revoke the license of an educator who is charged with a crime enumerated in the School Code is one of the most important changes. This is important because a criminal background check may fail depending on the accuracy of the databases they search; however, a school district is unlikely to hire a staff member who is not licensed. By the end of October, ISBE has already suspended 45 licenses of teachers, coaches, and administrators from all over Illinois.

Hopefully, the reliability of the background checks will improve though. Under the new Act, school districts must recheck the various registries (Illinois Sex Offender and Murderer and Violent Against Youth) every five years instead of just at the initial hiring. Additionally, when a school learns of a faculty member’s charge of an enumerated offense or presence on one of these lists, they must notify the State Superintendent within fifteen days. Schools also must consider the findings of neglect or child abuse by the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”) before hiring a candidate.

In addition to these personnel regulations, there are also several policy matters updated by the bill. One of the most important revisions is that when an allegation of sexual assault has been made to DCFS or a local law enforcement agency, it must be referred to the local Children’s Advocacy Center (“CAC”). Once this takes place, the school district is not allowed to interview the victim until after the completion of the review by the CAC, although the Act creates a way for the district to watch the recording of the interview. The Act also puts new consequences for the mandating reporting requirement imposed on school employees. If an employee personally observes abuse and willfully or negligently fails to report, they can face either an immediate revocation of their license or an evidentiary hearing that may result in a revocation. In addition to these mandated policy changes, the Act also requires that a school district must review its sexual abuse investigation policies every two years.

The Act was an expansive reform to school policy and practice and will hopefully be an effective change to prevent the abuse of students. As pointed out in the hearings, these policies will only be effective if school districts fully comply. Many of the problems originally highlighted in the Betrayed article may have been prevented by CPS’s compliance with the law that was already in place.