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OPRF principal, assistant wrestling coach reprimanded after investigation into off-campus incident

Oak Park and River Forest High School Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams reprimanded at least two school officials following an investigation into an alleged sexual misconduct that took place between students in August 2016. (Pioneer Press)

High School’s principal and assistant wrestling coach were reprimanded after an off-campus sexual misconduct incident involving students was alleged to have taken place last summer at the coach’s home when the coach was not home, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents show both OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse and OPRF assistant wrestling coach Mike Powell were disciplined by Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams.

Pruitt-Adams became OPRF interim superintendent on July 5, 2016, and school board members voted to make her the permanent superintendent in December.

According to a memo dated Dec. 7, 2016, Pruitt-Adams said a school investigation determined Powell engaged in "misconduct by allowing a current district student to spend an evening at [Powell’s] residence while [he] was out of town and informing the student that he could have other students over to [the] residence that same evening."

Pruitt-Adams described the conduct as "unprofessional," and constituted a display of "poor professional judgment."

A Jan. 11 memo from Pruitt-Adams to Rouse detailed further findings of the district’s investigation. In that memo, Pruitt-Adams concluded Rouse’s role in the report of an alleged student misconduct was "inadequate and flawed."

"In particular, [Rouse] failed to recognize that the element of student-on-student sexual misconduct distinguished the August 2016 report from other types of student misconduct reports and required [Rouse] to handle the report differently," Pruitt-Adams wrote. "You further failed to recognize that this element of sexual misconduct triggered the district’s obligation to conduct an internal Title IX investigation. As the district’s principal, you should have recognized the implications of the August 2016 report and responded accordingly."

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The principal objective of Title IX is to avoid the use of federal money to support sex discrimination in education programs and to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices.

School officials had said the incident took place Aug. 27, 2016, at the home of an OPRF assistant athletic coach, who was not home at the time, and OPRF became aware four days later of a "sexual misconduct" incident that allegedly occurred at the party between students. In November 2016, Powell released a statement confirming his temporary coaching suspension from the school, stating an incident "may have happened while students were in my home without my knowledge or permission when I was not there."

Powell had said the suspension was "not disciplinary in nature." By December, Powell had returned to his assistant coaching position, school officials said.

"As reflected in [the memos], the district conducted a thorough investigation into an incident that occurred off-campus last summer," OPRF spokeswoman Karin Sullivan said in a statement. "The investigation process itself was fair and comprehensive, and consisted of multiple investigatory steps such as interviews with students, as well as relevant staff members. The district took appropriate actions as a result of the investigation, but cannot comment publicly on the resulting actions due to student and employee confidentiality rights."

In order to remedy the conduct, Pruitt-Adams asked Powell to refrain from having district students on his property and not retaliate against any employee or student for participating in the district’s investigation into the matter. Pruitt-Adams also asked Powell to conduct himself in a professional manner, use professional judgment as a district employee, comply with all school policies, practices, guidelines and school rules related to proper interactions and relationships with district students.

Pruitt-Adams also said Rouse failed to "direct and oversee" the district’s response to the report.

"As the administrative leader of the high school, you should have identified the need to manage the district’s immediate response and conduct a proper internal investigation," Pruitt-Adams wrote. "Instead, you waited for the police to conclude its investigation."

Oak Park police Cmdr. LaDon Reynolds said the police department’s investigation into the matter is still "ongoing." Pruitt-Adams announced the district’s own six-week investigation had concluded prior to winter break.

According to the memo, Pruitt-Adams said Rouse’s decisions resulted in the district’s internal Title IX investigation being delayed.

"Due to your failure to exert control and exercise leadership in responding to this incident, the district’s initial reaction to the report was disjointed and lacked organization of information received and relayed," Pruitt-Adams wrote to Rouse.

In order to remedy the conduct, Pruitt-Adams asked Rouse to participate in Title IX training by Jan. 9, 2017, and meet with her within one week after completing the training.

Pruitt-Adams also asked Rouse to conduct himself in a professional manner, use professional judgment, comply with all board policies, practices, guidelines and school rules and not retaliate against any employee or student for participating in the district’s investigation.

Actions taken since the alleged incident include all OPRF faculty and staff undergoing Title IX training during a Jan. 9, 2017 institute day and the school creating a sexual misconduct and harassment policy revision committee, Pruitt-Adams said.

New school policies regarding the reporting of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying were approved June 13, while further policy changes regarding the harassment of students are expected to be approved this year.

"Over the course of the past year, the district has taken a number of steps to address sexual misconduct," Sullivan said. "These include holding a Title IX training for all staff, revising policies and procedures related to misconduct, harassment and bullying, educating students on how to report misconduct, reviewing our curricula for our health, self-defense and domestic violence prevention courses and holding a parent education event that will be continued as a series next year. These efforts are helping to create a positive, nurturing climate for our school community."

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