COVID-19, Law and Order, Local, Local Police Reports, Park Forest, Schools, Science

SD 163 Board Members Gave Their Children Access to Schools at the Start of the Pandemic

Michelle Obama School of Technology and the ARTS
Michelle Obama School of Technology and the ARTS (PHOTO SUPPLIED)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- eNews Park Forest has discovered several instances where children of School District 163 board members were given access to Michelle Obama School, sometimes unsupervised, at the start of the pandemic and beyond, in some cases setting off school alarms. When schools were ordered closed on March 13, 2020, some school board members made exceptions for themselves, members of their families, and friends of their children. Here we outline three of those instances.

While opening a school for the recreational use of children is one of the reasons such facilities exist, such programs are generally official and sponsored by schools, providing teens in particular with an ostensibly safe recreational environment. These instances, however, some unsupervised, do not appear to have been sponsored by the schools at all. Indeed, they could not have been sponsored by District 163 as they happened during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were closed, and off-limits for students. These instances appear to be times when School District 163 board members simply opened the school for the personal use of their children and the friends of their children for personal use. In one of the cases we outline here, children were alone, unsupervised, and left in a situation where they found themselves facing police alone.

We did reach out to School District 163 Superintendent Dr. Calitha White on August 24 for clarification of district policy regarding the use of schools by board members and their children. Specifically, we asked, does the district have records of children of board members using school facilities? Are school board members permitted to use facilities at their discretion? Might the district have security concerns about juveniles or adults using school facilities in these types of situations? We received a response from Dr. White on August 31, “I have shared your email with our Board of Education President as the media spokesperson for School District 163.”

To date, we have heard nothing from Board President Walter Mosby.

We note that there may have been more instances when school board members gave access to district facilities at the start of the pandemic. We only know of these because of the police response. We also note that no one was arrested, charged, or ticketed in any of these incidents.

Three Incident Reports in the First Year of COVID-19

We begin with incident report 20PF04256 on Friday, March 13, 2020, the day that Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that “all schools in Illinois would close for a period to begin the following Tuesday” due to COVID-19. At this point, we knew next to nothing about the virus that would paralyze the state and nation and lead to refrigerator trailers full of bodies only a month later, and vaccines were only a distant possible hope.

On that evening, Friday, March 13, Park Forest Police responded to Michelle Obama School, 530 Lakewood Boulevard, in response to a call at 6:45 PM regarding six or seven juveniles who had “just barged into door 13 refusing to leave,” according to police.

When police responded the nature of the call changed from “Juvenile Prob” to “Unwanted Subject,” according to police. The report says that School Board 163 member Judy Hawthorne advised that she was inside the school with her son and some of his friends who appeared to be playing basketball, according to police. The report states that although the school was closed for sanitary reasons amid COVID-19, Ms. Hawthorne was in the building along with students she invited, that they were “allowed inside the building because she was a member of the school board,” the report states.

Ms. Hawthorne called for police assistance because a group of students who were not invited attempted to gain entry, according to police.

The report states that school board member Randall J. White, whose name turns up often in these reports, also arrived on the scene and confirmed that “Hawthorne along with students were permitted entry into the building,” the report states. Mr. White asked police to confirm this with “Police Administration and Tom Mick,” according to police.

Village Manager Tom Mick tells eNews Park Forest that Mr. White had not consulted or confirmed any of this with him ahead of time. Furthermore, Mr. Mick said the Village of Park Forest had no authority and gave no permission to allow school board members to access the building.

All parties left the building while officers were on the scene, according to police.

Second Incident in November 2020

On November 17, 2020, while schools were still on lockdown, police responded to the school again when the burglar alarm went off. This was incident number 20PF18355.

At this time, there was no official Stay-at-Home order, but the Illinois Department of Public Health advised on November 7 that Illinois residents “stay home as much as possible, leaving only for necessary and essential activities, such as work that must be performed outside the home, COVID-19 testing, visiting the pharmacy, and buying groceries.”

Furthermore, no indoor dining was permitted, health and fitness centers were capped at 25% capacity, and face coverings were required at all times. Locker rooms were to remain closed, and hotels had to limit capacity to registered guests.

Specifically, arcades, casinos, rec centers, theaters, and museums were all required to close.

It was at this time that school board member Randall White made an exception for himself.

Police responded and found youths inside playing basketball unsupervised. One of the teens told police that his father, Randall White, was the “commissioner,” and had allowed the teen and his two friends inside the building to play basketball. According to police, Mr. White left the teens inside the building alone and did not specify when he would return. The teen gave Mr. White’s cellular phone number to an officer and that officer notified SouthCom Dispatch.

According to police, Mr. White then showed up after he had been contacted “with another subject.” The report first states that he told dispatchers he was on his way but “refused to give ETA” or a description of the vehicle he would be driving.

Mr. White then entered the building with the other subject and told the responding officer, “All right, officer, have a nice day,” according to the report. Prior to the officer leaving the area, Mr. White was told that the alarm had been activated and needed to be reset, according to police.

Third Incident: Large Basketball Event

A third instance happened on December 27, 2020, at 3:12 PM (incident #20PF20495). By this time, Illinois had surpassed 10 million total tests administered, with nearly 700,000 of them being positive.

On this occasion, police found a “large group inside the building.” The group was a large number of teens taking part in a “basketball event,” according to the report, which one village official described as a basketball tournament. The responding officer found Mr. Randall White on the scene.

Park Forest Police Chief Paul Winfrey told eNews Park Forest that police received a number of complaints from members of the public about this event in particular given the risk of COVID-19 at the time.

COVID-19 At the Time

By this point, Park Forest had seen 21 deceased from COVID-19 and had 1,487 cases since the pandemic began. The combined number of deaths for the region stood at 781, according to our reporting at the time. But as Dr. Timothy Angelotti, MD Ph.D., told eNews Park Forest then, “The problem is it’s not about death, it’s not about the healthy people or the people that get very little illness from this. It’s about the surge that can happen in a hospital setting when you have a whole bunch of people get infected.”

“Our biggest fear, and that’s what people don’t appreciate, that if you want a hospital full of people who are full of COVID then keep doing what we’re doing,” Dr. Angelotti said. “Then all other medical care will go by the wayside until we get control of this. Do you want us to cancel elective surgeries again?”

The incidents outlined here are only three that take us through the end of 2020. There are others as well which we will outline shortly.