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Understanding the public comments at District 215’s April 25 school board meeting

LANSING, Ill. (May 2, 2023) – Seventeen voices spoke for nearly an hour during public comments to an audience of approximately 100 people at the April 25 meeting of the Thornton Fractional District 215 School Board. The audience included board members, incoming board members, district staff and faculty, families, students, and other observers.

The voices were those of students and a few parents. Many of the students were members of the Student Equity Leadership Club at TF South, a club formerly sponsored by English teacher Guadalupe Ramirez, whose resignation was accepted by the board at their March 28 meeting.

Several of the same voices were also heard as public comments at the December 13, 2022, school board meeting, and at the March 28, 2023, school board meeting.

Public comment protocol

Typically at District 215 School Board meetings, public comment is a time for comments or questions to be expressed, but responding to those comments is handled separately, in accordance with Board Policy 3:30. School Board policy allows 30 minutes for public comment at regular and special meetings of the board, though the board may extend the allotted time at their discretion, as they did on April 25.

At the April 25 meeting, board members listened to 15 public comments before continuing with the next items on the agenda. In response to an outcry from the crowd on behalf of two audience members who had not followed the posted protocol for public comment, Board President Rita Oberman relented and paused the meeting to allow the additional two comments to be entered into the record.

Issues voiced

Issues voiced at the December 13, March 28, and April 25 meetings include:

  • Mrs. Ramirez and her personal and educational impact on students
  • Reinstatement of the Student Equity Leadership Club
  • Equity at TF South
  • Request for a “student equity audit”
  • The level of academic rigor in the English Department at TF South
  • Student accomplishments at TF South due to teacher investment
  • Lack of preparation for standardized testing
  • Curriculum improvements
  • Student representation in curriculum development
  • Allowing students direct access to the decision-making process
  • Amplifying student voices
  • The rights of students to express themselves and feel safe
  • First amendment rights for students
  • Fair treatment of students at TF South
  • Impacts of No-Pass Days
  • Impacts of locking the restrooms
  • Lack of advance notice for the November 2022 canine search
  • Lack of positive morning greetings for students
  • Re-evaluation of the dress code
  • Potential difficulties with ID requirements
  • Lack of diversity among TF South faculty

The Lansing Journal followed up with TF South and District 215 administration for response to several of the issues raised. In addition, TF South Principal Jake Gourley sent an email to TF South families on Friday, April 28.

Regarding the Student Equity Leadership Club

The Student Equity Leadership Club was organized as a way “to ensure input from our students is a part of our initiative,” according to a July 20, 2020, memo from District 215’s Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, Dr. Rena Whitten. She was writing on behalf of the Equity Committee, which serves as a task force for the D215 Equity in Action initiative adopted by the board.

The committee also requested that the board “waive the two-year unpaid standard associated with the establishment of new clubs.” That is, the sponsor of the Student Equity Leadership Club would be compensated right away, rather than serving two years without payment first, as is standard practice when a new club is established. “Both these actions [forming the club and paying the sponsor right away] will allow our District to monitor the progress of the equity action plan, assess the impact on students, and incorporate student voice in our decision-making,” wrote Dr. Whitten.

The Student Equity Leadership Club would hold twice-monthly meetings that would include discussions on equity, cultural relevance, evaluation of the school environment, and navigating current issues. Club members would also participate in activities that would “include review and monitoring of equity action items, equity activities with peers, and opportunities to express student voice through leadership activities.”

Committed to the ongoing goals of the Equity in Action initiative, the board approved both requests. At an October 14, 2020, special meeting of the board, English teacher Guadalupe Ramirez was approved as sponsor of the club.

Ramirez’s resignation from TF South and the superintendent’s decision — in consultation with the district’s attorney — to suspend the club have left the club with no leader, so activities are suspended until a new sponsor is approved. The sponsorship was posted internally April 18 as an available position. On May 4 Superintendent Sophia Jones-Redmond confirmed that the district has received an application from an internal candidate to sponsor the club in the 2023-2024 school year.

Regarding No-Pass Days

As a safety precaution, students are prohibited from being in the hallways while class is in session. During a typical school day, if students need to leave their classrooms, they can request a hall pass from the teacher. The pass can then be shown to staff who are monitoring the halls while class is in session. A No-Pass Day disallows classroom teachers from giving hall passes to students.

According to TF South records, only one No-Pass Day has been called during the 2022–2023 school year, on Friday, December 2. Principal Gourley explained that it was called on a day when hall coverage was limited because of staff illnesses or other absences. Without enough staff available to monitor hallways, Gourley requested, “Please do not issue passes to students for anything other than a legitimate emergency. (Use your best professional discretion.) Please continue to honor any passes that come from offices requesting to meet with students or sending them back to class. Thanks for your support and cooperation and let’s all make an effort to be visible during passing periods throughout the day.” (December 2, 2022, email from Jake Gourley to TF South Group)

Regarding locked restrooms

In Principal Gourley’s email to families, he also addressed the issue of locking student restrooms at TF South: “There have been occasions when student bathrooms have needed to be locked for safety and hygiene reasons but never for punitive reasons. This includes one bathroom that has had to be repainted four times since spring break [April 3–6] because of vandalism. Additionally, several soap dispensers have been broken off the walls, sinks destroyed, and toilet paper in the stalls has been soaked with urine which leaves the bathroom in an unsanitary state and necessitates a hygienic deep clean. In these circumstances, I have authorized a temporary bathroom closure during the repair and/or deep-cleaning and directed our Deans’ office to review camera footage to try and identify the culprits.”

Regarding the canine search

In a phone call on Thursday, April 27, Principal Gourley explained to The Lansing Journal that a canine search is common practice not only at TF South, but also throughout the country. “It is not done because we believe students are criminals,” he said, “but it’s a proactive measure to keep the building safe and drug-free.” This same explanation was included in the email Gourley later sent to TF South families.

Lansing Police Chief Al Phillips confirmed, “We have worked with TF South for as long as I have worked here, and that’s 25 years. We typically conduct a search once a year, but there may have been some years that were skipped due to COVID or some other reason.”

The only canine search conducted this school year was on November 19, 2022. Despite the long history of the practice, Gourley recognizes that for many students currently in school, this may have been their first experience with a canine search, as this was the first search conducted since the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, K-9 Luna searched only hallways, not classrooms, and students had no interaction with the dog or any other officers.

No drugs were found during the canine search, but K-9 Luna did alert her handlers to two mace sprayers and one taser. These are considered weapons under the Illinois School Code.

Statement from Principal Gourley to TF South families

On Friday, April 28, in response to the public comments made at Tuesday’s school board meeting, Principal Gourley sent an email to TF South families.

“You may have been hearing of concerns of students and families regarding a few conditions at TF South,” the email began. “I also have heard these concerns and want to address them directly with factual information.”

The email provided detailed information in the following categories:

  • Student bathrooms being locked
  • K-9 Searches
  • No-Pass Days
  • Student Equity Leadership (SEL) Club
  • Curriculum Rigor

Gourley’s email continued, “It is my hope that any misconceptions are now cleared up and that any questions are directed to me first to allow me, in my role as principal, to remedy concerns. I know we strive to provide the best educational experience for all of our students and working together we can ensure positive outcomes for all our scholars.”

TF South High School is located at 18500 186th Street in Lansing.

The District 215 School Board meets at Thornton Fractional Center for Academics and Technology, which is located at 1605 Wentworth, Calumet City, Illinois. Board meetings are typically held on the fourth Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m., and Committee of the Whole meetings are held the second Wednesday of the month at 6 p.m., except June and July. Meetings are open to the public.

public comments
District 215 includes three schools in addition to TF South — TF North, the Center for Academics and Technology, and the Center for Alternative Learning. The Center for Academics and Technology also hosts meetings of the District 215 School Board. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma grew up in Lansing, Illinois, and believes The Lansing Journal has an important role to play in building community through trustworthy information.