Belleville East High School parent Ed McCann of Swansea was alarmed to learn a student with pending felony charges was permitted to attend the same school as his son and daughter.
McCann and others became aware of student David E. Fields' criminal history after Fields, 17, was charged in connection with the criminal sexual assault of a female student in December on campus. In September, Fields was charged with two counts of aggravated battery and illegal possession of ammunition after St. Clair County Sheriff's deputies responded to a report of shots fired at his Shiloh home.
Since learning of a state law that requires school districts in Illinois to educate students even if they have pending criminal charges, McCann began lobbying legislators to get the law changed, and last week, state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, introduced a bill to do just that.
Hoffman, who was contacted by McCann, introduced House Bill 4775, which if approved, would amend the Illinois School Code to allow school districts the option of suspending or expelling a student if he or she has been charged with a violent felony and the charges are pending or if the student has been convicted of a violent felony.
"I think it's a good thing," McCann said Tuesday. "It's such a no-brainer. I truly believe if you ask most administrators they would have wished they had such a law a long time ago. Personally I think it's a good area for Illinois to lead the way for the rest of the country."
Fields has pleaded not guilty to the sexual assault. He was free on $75,000 bail at the time of the sexual assault in December.
Belleville School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said the district has no choice but to allow a student with pending charges to continue to attend school in accordance with state law and orders of the court.
"If it's part of the probation or order of the court for a student to attend school, unless they get into trouble at school we have to educate them in an appropriate placement," he explained. "It has always been a very difficult decision."
Fields was attending the district's Alternative Day School Program located in a building on the Belleville East campus. He was placed in this program before he was charged in September.
Dosier said Fields currently does not attend school at either Belleville East or West high schools, but couldn't provide any further details due to student confidentiality regulations.
Hoffman's House Bill 4775 would amend the Illinois School Code to allow a school board or authorize a school official to suspend or expel a student if he or she has been charged with a violent felony and the charges are pending or if the student has been convicted of a violent felony.
"Right now, school officials don't have the authority to take the steps needed to best protect the safety of their teachers, staff and students," Hoffman said. "Other states allow schools to take this action. Our schools should be able to look at a case individually and the crimes committed by a particular student and ultimately decide if that student poses a risk to the school community."
The safety of the entire student body should be the top priority, according to Hoffman. "That should come above and beyond anything," he said. "That should be the No. 1 goal -- the safety of students."
Other states like Massachusetts give more discretion to school district administrators in regard to whether an individual can attend school or if he or she is a threat as a result of out of school activity.
Currently, Illinois law permits expulsion of students only if the offense occurs on school grounds or involves students and/or staff members off campus.
"There is no leeway given to school administrators to say this is a dangerous individual and they shouldn't be in school," McCann said.
In Massachusetts, the law allows a student to be suspended if she or he is charged with a felony until the case is resolved -- whether or not the crime occurred at the school.
Hoffman hopes to have action taken on the House Bill 4775 during the legislative session this spring.
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.