EVANSTON, IL — A longtime tenured teacher in the Evanston/Skokie 65 school district who was fired last year is going to court to get her job back.
Cheree Bertalan, 53, was fired in December 2021 in connection with a July 2018 incident at her Rogers Park condominium during a two-night sleepover with her son and two 10-year-old boys from her baseball team traveling, according to court records. .
In this incident, according to the undisputed facts set out in an impartial hearing officer’s report, Bertalan gave the boys melatonin while they were still awake at 4 a.m. the first night.
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Although she spoke to the boys’ parents to ask if they could stay a second night, she made no mention of giving them melatonin and never asked permission, records show.
About 10 days after the incident, Bertalan, then a second-grade teacher at Walker Elementary, was notified by the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, or DCFS, that someone had filed a abuse and neglect claim against her following her conduct at the sleepover.
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The following month, Cook County prosecutors filed eight criminal charges against her – five counts of child endangerment and three counts of battery.
On the same day – a week before the start of school – Bertalan applied for 12 weeks leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was to start on the first day of school.
According to court documents, the DCFS investigation in November 2018 found that abuse or neglect was “indicated,” a finding Bertalan appealed.
During a one-day trial in February 2019, a judge found Bertalan not guilty of the charges, although he told her, “I don’t know what you were thinking, ma’am. An adult should not force a child to eat. vegetables, even less”, according to the Hearing Officer’s report.
In August 2019, the board passed a resolution recommending Bertalan’s dismissal, describing his conduct as “irremediable cause” for dismissal. In response, Bertalan requested a hearing with an impartial hearing officer, records show.
That same month, the DCFS willfully grounded the report after an administrative judge heard its appeal, according to a document provided by Bertalan.
Barry Simon was appointed Independent Hearing Officer and conducted the hearing last year over three days in June and August. It released a final report on the matter in November 2021.
“It is indisputable that [Bertalan] never reported DCFS or criminal charges to the district,” Simon said.
“[Bertalan’s] the district’s continued withholding of information has irreparably damaged its relationship with administrative staff, according to [the District]”, Simon said. “It says she eroded any confidence the district might have had in her ability to act professionally and honestly. He also claims that she interfered with the district’s ability to carry out its stated policy regarding the professionalism of its teachers.”
Although Simon concluded that the board was unable to establish that he was prejudiced by Bertalan’s failure to inform him of the ongoing DCFS investigation, he determined that, at at the very least, Bertalan had displayed a serious lack of judgment which reflected poorly on her ability to be a teacher.
“[District 65] can no longer count on her to exercise the level of judgment necessary for the safety and well-being of the children in her care,” concluded Simon. “It didn’t matter that [Bertalan’s] driving was not at school or while performing duties related to her teaching position. Because it dealt with the way she cared for the children under her supervision, there is a sufficient connection to her work.”
Bertalan notified a union representative the same day she learned of the state’s child welfare investigation and was told it was her decision whether or not to tell her employer about the incident, according to the hearing officer.
“[The district] argues that tenure is not intended to protect a teacher who fails to meet her professional and ethical obligations by displaying poor judgment with respect to the children in her care, dishonesty in her dealings with district administration and refusal to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his conduct and its adverse effects,” Simon said. “Stating that no additional warning would have been effective, [the district] argues that the dismissal was the District’s only remedy and asks that it be upheld.”
But Bertalan denied that his actions violated community standards and noted that the district does not have an explicit policy that requires staff to notify administration when facing criminal or child neglect charges. according to Simon’s report. She also argued that the DCFS finding of abuse, which was willfully unfounded, and the criminal charges, of which she was found not guilty, should not be held against her.
On December 16, 2021, the council held a special meeting with only one item on the agenda: “dismissal of a tenured teacher”.
Council members voted 5-0, with two members absent, to “pass the resolution and order the dismissal of the homeroom teacher discussed in previous closed sessions,” according to the minutes.
The district did not include a copy of the board-approved resolution or identify Bertalan as the teacher he was firing, but it was later filed in court when she sued to get her job back. . It shows that the council reversed the hearing officer’s decision on whether Bertalan’s failure to notify district officials constituted a second offense worth dismissal.
In January, Bertalan filed an administrative review complaint in Cook County Court, asking a judge to find his dismissal unfair and order his reinstatement.
According to his complaint, filed on Bertalan’s behalf by Northbrook attorney Steven Glink, the board’s decision to fire Bertalan is “contrary to established law and against the clear weight of the evidence” for at least one of the following reasons: below.
- she had worked at the district for 25 years without a single complaint,
- the “vast majority” of the school community supported her to keep her job,
- that DCFS ultimately voluntarily disproved the allegations of abuse,
- that the boys did not attend schools in District 65,
- that the board has failed to prove anything that she has harmed students, staff or the community,
- that both the Board and the Independent Hearing Officer improperly determined her judgment, which impacted her duties as a classroom teacher,
- that various courts have held that more serious acts can be repaired,
- that there was no specific policy that required him to notify administrators of the status of the DCFS probe,
- that the district administrators never asked her direct questions about the DCFS investigation, so she never directly lied about it,
- or that case law has found “an incident of poor judgment may be remediable where the homeroom teacher realizes the district between conduct as a teacher and conduct as a private citizen”.
In response, district attorneys echoed the impartial hearing officer’s finding that giving the boys melatonin without their parents’ consent was sufficient cause for dismissal.
Bertalan may have acted out of desperation the first night of the slumber party, but the argument doesn’t hold water after that, especially since she had spoken to the parents of the other boys before the second night, according to the report. the hearing officer.
“She deprived the parents of any opportunity to object to her conduct,” Simon said. “The fact that they all phoned [Bertalan] complaining the next day suggests they wouldn’t have approved if asked.”
Bertalan testified that she only gave her own son the melatonin after speaking with his doctor, admitting she didn’t know if the other children had any medical issues that might be complicated by ingesting the melatonin. substance.
She also admitted to reading news reports about criminal charges against a trio of teachers at a Des Plaines daycare center who administered melatonin to children without their parents’ permission, according to the hearing officer. . This incident generated widespread media coverage just months before Bertalan dosed his son’s companion.
According to the school district, Bertalan had a financial incentive not to tell district officials about the DCFS investigation because it would have caused her to be placed on unpaid leave.
“If a reporter hadn’t contacted the district about the allegations against [Bertalan], [the District] suggests that he may not have had knowledge of the allegations against her,” according to Amy Dickenson, district attorney at the law firm Franczek.
“Her assertion that because no written policy or guideline that she informs the DCFS District indicated that a conclusion existed, she had an obligation to do so, is ridiculous,” Dickenson argued. “The obligation of an educator to inform the District of a finding reported against this educator is so fundamental to the role of an educator that no policy is needed.”
The district also argued that Bertalan’s lack of remorse and refusal to admit wrongdoing is evidence that his conduct was irremediable, part of the legal standards for dismissal of tenured teachers under case law. from Illinois.
Giving the teacher a warning in this case “renders meaningless” the expectation that teachers will be professional, honest and open with administrators and would set a precedent that every time teachers receive a DCFS finding of indicated abuse They can avoid discipline by withholding it from administrators, according to the district.
“Allowing Bertalan to return to class, after she has admitted no wrongdoing on his part, would send a dangerous and unsustainable message to the district community,” the district attorney said.
“So while Bertalan’s conduct might be of a type that might warrant a warning to some teachers, his reluctance to accept the magnitude of the district’s concerns,” they argued, “and his continued behavior of a such dishonest conduct, is further evidence of irremediable cause for dismissal.”
According to the Cook County Circuit Clerk, the next hearing in the case before Circuit Judge Pamela Mclean Meyerson is scheduled for October 19 at the Daley Center in Chicago.
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