Some of their school-day email conversations were flirtatious and filled with sexual innuendos.
But former United Township High School teacher Jason VanHoutte and several of his colleagues weren’t just using the school district’s email system to speak this way about each other.
Their banter also included references to female students.
Written in the months leading up to VanHoutte’s guilty plea to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old student in 2009, a series of emails obtained by the Quad-City Times from East Moline police through a Freedom of Information Act request shows a pattern of inappropriate communications and that at least some UTHS staff members were aware of his affinity for certain young girls.
They repeatedly refer to one particular student as “your girl.”
They joke about VanHoutte getting “paid” for watching the cheerleaders at a home game in an inappropriate manner.
And one teacher, Brian Schou, even writes to VanHoutte about a student’s crush on him.
“The conversation in my classroom right now is about how (redacted name) would really like to strike up a relationship with you once she graduates,” Schou said in an email dated May 18, 2009. “She said if she were 10 years older, she would be after you. At this point I had to interrupt and tell her if she were 10 years older, she wouldn’t have a chance.”
Schou, an English teacher for the past 10 years at UTHS, said he was just joking around with VanHoutte in the email and had no idea he was involved with one of his students until police were involved.
The same goes for UTHS District Superintendent Jay Morrow, who said he and other administrators didn’t know such emails were being sent, or about VanHoutte’s interests, until police contacted UTHS District 30 during their investigation.
With his eyes watery and red-rimmed, Morrow said he continues to feel very concerned and disappointed about the issue, which has “certainly been a huge distraction” and caused turmoil for the school since it surfaced two years ago.
VanHoutte, 39, is serving prison time on three felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, with a projected parole date in September 2020. He was fired the day after charges were brought against him, Morrow said.
The other high school teachers and counselors involved in the emails, which were part of the police investigation, are still employed by the district. Police did not find anything illegal about their actions, the superintendent said.
“We took appropriate action,” Morrow said. “Beyond that, I can’t comment because it’s a personnel issue.”
VanHoutte’s attorney, William G. Schick, has filed a motion for post-conviction relief in Rock Island County Circuit Court, asking the court to vacate the conviction after the recent resignation and guilty plea from the man who prosecuted him, former Rock Island State’s Attorney Jeff Terronez.
Terronez confessed in April to providing alcohol for and having inappropriate contact with the same girl VanHoutte was accused of sexually assaulting.
“Our first priority was to deal with the kid, to make sure the student had some semblance of a normal school life. That’s difficult to do,” Morrow said, adding that each time the issue arises in court, it rocks the school district again.
The case shocked many at the high school, where VanHoutte was a “well-liked, well-respected teacher” with no inappropriate behavior with students known in his past, Morrow said.
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After VanHoutte was fired, administrators took action to help the rest of the staff deal with the situation, not only to process it in their own minds, but also to help students through it. A counseling expert from Western Illinois University, Holly Nikels, was brought in to speak to the counselors and teachers about the issue, Morrow said.
“It was kind of like dealing with a loss,” he said. “You go through the different range of emotions. What happened, it wasn’t a death, but I think there were a lot of similar emotions, especially for his colleagues. There was a feeling of loss because he was a well-liked, well-respected colleague that’s no longer with us. The accusations were very, very bad, and again, it goes back to we’ve got to do what’s best for the kids.”
At the start of each school year, Morrow reminds employees about the district’s long-standing Internet-use policy, which outlines that staff should use the system only for legitimate school business purposes and “have no expectation of privacy.”
But the district was not aware of VanHoutte’s emails with his colleagues that violated that policy, Morrow said.
The district’s email servers handle about half a million emails per school year, and those are not monitored regularly — even now, the superintendent said.
“There’s no way in heck that we could monitor all those emails. If we had a full-time person do that, I think that would be tough to justify,” he said. “There are inappropriate emails everywhere, and that’s the sad thing about it.”
Superintendent in the district since January 2007, Morrow said he remembers talking about the issue at an in-service training session held one week before VanHoutte was charged.
“I talk to the faculty and staff about appropriate email, especially now in the Facebook era,” he said. “Let’s use our heads a little bit. Be careful who you allow as a friend on Facebook and what you post on Facebook.
“You put something electronically out there, whether it’s on your social media site or email, it’s out there now. Somebody has a record of it. I think people should be more aware of it, and if they’re not, they’re being naïve.”
School staff also should be careful about what their relationships with students — and former students — look like away from the computer, Morrow said.
The VanHoutte investigation uncovered that he not only had assaulted a current student but was involved in a relationship at some point with a former student who was of legal age. Morrow said it’s safe to say that he would frown upon that and doesn’t want his staff to have the reputation of doing that.
“But there is no control. There’s nothing illegal,” Morrow said. “Some people may not like it, but there’s nothing illegal about it.”
He said police and other investigative authorities will be alerted about any suspicions regarding teacher conduct.
“We can put all the policies in place that we can,” Morrow said. “What happens outside of these school walls is what’s difficult for us to manage.”
Sounding sad and serious as he talked, Morrow said he understands the VanHoutte case “doesn’t reflect well on our school or on education as a whole,” he said.
“We’re trying to move on from this ordeal,” he said. “We always do what’s best for the kid. In this case, we tried to do what’s best for the victim involved and everybody else.
“It’s a great school. It’s sad that this one isolated incident reflects poorly on our school.”