Public outcry continues as new ‘deplorable’ emails surface from O’Fallon school board member
For the third time in five weeks, a large crowd attended the O'Fallon District 90 school board meeting with several people going to the microphone to voice concerns over emails sent by school board member Steve Springer.
Springer, a three-term board member, came under fire last month for making comments in emails sent to District 90 Superintendent Carrie Hruby in August 2016 over accommodations for a transgender student and remarks about accommodating the hypothetical needs of Muslim students, which some people considered racist, homophobic and Islamophobic. The emails were made public following Freedom of Information Act requests. Many civic, education and religious leaders and parents have called on Springer to resign, but he remains resolute with no plans to resign.
"No way in hell will I resign from this board," Springer said previously.
Now, more emails from Springer are being called into question. The latest emails, also brought to light through FOIA requests, were between Springer and fellow board members in regard to avoiding sexual harassment allegations, as well as correspondence between Springer and state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, regarding a governor's Muslim Advisory Council.
Springer did not publicly address commentators during the June 19 meeting at Fulton Junior High, nor did he return calls for comment afterward. However, he alluded to his emails in a letter to the editor, published June 14 in the O'Fallon Progress.
"If I could rewrite the events of the past six weeks, I would have done things differently, worded things differently. My intent was not to harm or offend, but to address policies that affect our community," Springer wrote in the letter to the editor.
"We all think and communicate differently. We are all individuals with free will and freedom of thought. (Mary) Baskett hears anger, but I share my persona: intensity, passion and conviction.
"Those out to silence and destroy me will renew their shouts for my resignation: 'Discredit Springer for everything he says!'
"They came after me for every possible negative interpretation of my words, no matter my true meaning or intent. They will surely find fault with more of my emails and public comments, trying to find offense.
"So what all is off-limits? Is SNL humor off-limits? It can certainly be offensive to some. It’s off-limits if it doesn’t meet their particular standard of political correctness?"
Muslim Advisory Council opposition email
Springer also is a member of the Metro East Pachyderm Club, a Republican group which hosts speakers and encourages citizen involvement. He has said previously that business he conducts as a school board and a Metro East Pachyderm Club member are not related.
However, at the June 19 meeting, Mary Nan Jordan, a parent of a District 90 student, read emails she said suggest otherwise. The emails dated Sept. 26, 2016, are from Springer to McCarter.
"I recently became aware of a Muslim Advisory Council which was formed under Gov. Quinn. I now understand that Gov. Rauner is considering approval of a Muslim Advisory Council. What is the real truth and status of the same?" Springer wrote from a personal email.
Springer continued, "I am unaware of any other advisory council for Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc. Please know that I am strongly against such a council as are many/most of the Pachyderm Club membership and all others that I am familiar with ... please advise."
It is unclear if McCarter responded to the email. McCarter was unavailable for comment.
In regard to the Muslim Advisory Council email to McCarter, board member Jason Boone said that board policies and code of conduct are clear.
"You should not be influenced by a political party," Boone said. "I read the email repeatedly. That email absolutely expresses a political opinion, and affiliates with a political organization, the Pachyderm Club ... It's unfortunate that a board member is trying to use political influence with a political organization on a state elected politician."
Boone, who has asked for Springer to resign during previous meetings, has been vocal about his disdain for Springer's comments and emails before.
"What's most disappointing is that after every meeting something new comes up," Boone said. "In another FOIA request, I learn something else about his feelings. I will say he has absolutely every right to think and feel as he chooses. As a private citizen, he has the right to say whatever he chooses. But, in my opinion, I think when he is a public figure and board member, those words reflect his opinions as a board member."
Sexual harassment video
Jordan also read from another email Springer sent to all board members in which he linked a video to a "Saturday Night Live" skit. The skit jokes about ways to avoid being sued for sexual harassment.
The video, titled "Sexual Harassment and You: Follow These Rules To Avoid a Lawsuit," aired in 2005, and features New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. In it, Brady's character gropes one woman and approaches another female co-worker in his underwear, and tells viewers, "See, you can have sex with women at work if you follow these three simple rules: Be handsome. Be attractive, and don't be unattractive."
Springer wrote in the Dec. 17, 2017, email, sent from his personal account to his fellow board members, "This is the best piece I have seen in forever!! Excellent!! Something of which every male should be aware."
Jordan said she found the email "problematic" and not professional. She asked the school board to consider training or implementing a policy to make more clear to board members what is appropriate content to share. She also noted that it should be made more clear to board members what methods can be used for official board business communications, referring to Springer's use of personal and board-specific email addresses interchangeably.
In the Air Force for 20 years, Jordan said, she received "a lot of training on official communications" and was told to "think about your audience."
"I'm wondering if some training would be in order here, because your audience isn't just the school board you sent these emails to, it's also the people who voted the school board in. This isn't private email communications, it's public," Jordan said.
District parent Christie Livingston echoed those sentiments and said formal training should be considered.
"There's not an attorney out there, not an HR (human resources) professional that would say that's OK," Livingston said of Springer's email.
Livingston said the skit's premise that women "overlook and ignore sexual harassment for attractive men," also was "not factual."
"On a Saturday night in our own homes, if that's what you want to watch, that's perfectly fine," Livingston. said. "Quite frankly, I'm a little bit upset with the females who are on the board for not calling our attention to it and not saying, 'What are you thinking for sending that out?' "
Board member Mary Baskett said she never saw the SNL email from Springer.
"I want to assure you that the emails you are talking about tonight, I am not familiar with," Baskett said. "I have addressed issues that I've seen in emails with people, including Mr. Springer, that I do not agree with in public and private meetings, and perhaps that's one reason I'm not getting all of the emails that are being sent out."
However, Baskett, along with all other board members and Hruby, are all listed as recipients of the sexual harassment email. They were not included in the Muslim Advisory email from Springer.
Boone, who said he works in human resources, called the sexual harassment emails "deplorable."
"There's absolutely no way that email would be accepted in any company in America. You'd be fired immediately for sending it," Boone said.
Boone said his primary concern was for the the district teachers, the majority being women, and how they feel about that board member protecting them in an instance of sexual harassment.
"I hope you feel safe, but I understand if you don't because of that email," he said.
Boone said he desires for the school district to have a welcoming environment.
"To do so, we can't be a divided community," Boone said. "I don't want somebody looking into O'Fallon and hesitate to move here because their student is a member of the LGBT community and won't be welcomed. I don't want a family, who is Muslim by descent who works at the (Scott) Air Force Base ... and doesn't want to move here and be close to their workplace because they don't feel the school board is accommodating and welcoming to their community."
Just as he did in May, Boone requested the board to draw up and adopt a resolution asking Springer to resign as a "statement to the community."
“We cannot remove Mr. Springer,” Boone said. “A censure does not remove him, but what we can do, as a board, is formally say we cannot agree with these actions and words, misuse of electronic communication. We think it’s wrong, and we request that you resign because of your actions.”
St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty and Illinois Association of School Boards spokeswoman Kara Kienzler both have previously stated neither the voters or the board have the authority to recall or remove Springer. Sarfaty said she has the ability to remove a board member only if he or she exhibits "willful negligence of duties."
District parent Eyreka Grider, who has taken to the podium before supporting those calling for Springer’s resignation, said she feels students in the district are held to a higher standard than board members. The Fulton Junior High Code of Conduct prohibits "'inappropriate, ethnic and/or racial comments or slurs," Grider said, adding she thought Springer was in violation of that policy.
O'Fallon resident Tony Mast has called for Springer's resignation previously. But he did not at the June 19 meeting. This time, he only asked for an apology.
"I'm not going to call for your resignation, since you said you're not going to, I respect that." Mast said. "You are a fiscal conservative, protecting the money that's entrusted to the board, I respect that. But what I also respect is a person who can learn, who can see the world is changing, has changed.
"You can sit there with your arms crossed, ignoring me, and that's OK. But I'm going to ask again, apologize. Consider what you said was inappropriate."
Open meeting violations?
The public session of the June 19 meeting lasted about three hours before the board convened behind closed doors for an approximate 80-minute executive session. At about 11 p.m., board members returned to open session for about 15 minutes to approve closed-session minutes and discuss some possible Open Meetings Act violations.
Hruby was asked to check with legal counsel on whether the board violated the Open Meetings Act when Hruby and Drury drafted the resolution in May, disavowing comments made by Springer in emails. Boone said because it was a group email, it could be an issue.
"I would have liked it to be individual, but people replied all with a vote, 'I approve.' That is a direct violation," Boone said.
Springer said he also thinks the board violated the Open Meetings Act when they drafted and approved the statement disavowing his comments without including him.
John Wagnon, the board president, previously said he and Hruby reached out to Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office and consulted with the office's public access counselor.