Durand residents deal with ‘devastating’ school sex scandal
Parents in the Durand School District were angry when the sex scandal broke. Six weeks later, the anger lingers, as does an unspoken shame.
It’s easy to understand why. The district, with 693 students and 132 employees, is the heart and soul of the village.
But criminal charges against two high school teachers accused of inappropriate relationships with students have dealt a stunning blow to the village of 1,100.
Five generations of Beverly Waller’s family were educated by Durand teachers, starting when the district was a motley collection of single-room schoolhouses. She is a Durand High School alumna.
So the Oct. 22 arrest of Spanish teacher Jennifer Bland, accused of having sexual contact with six male students, “was devastating,” she said.
Then, another blow: Last week authorities arrested Brett Meier, a 41-year-old social studies teacher. He faces a felony charge of possession of child pornography and is accused of propositioning a minor at the school where he taught.
“We have to start healing,” Waller said.
Healing is easier said than done in a tiny village where everybody knows everybody else’s business and the school district in many ways embodies a town’s identity.
Like much of rural America, Durand has its own rhythm, a slower pace that its residents prize. There has never been much industry apart from farming. A Bryden Ford dealership, Pacemaker grocery and Barker Lumber Co. provide most of the sales tax revenue that keeps the village running.
“Welcome to Durand, Illinois! Founded in 1835, Durand was named for H.S. Durand, the first president of the Western Union Railroad,” the village’s Web site proclaims.
Gift shops, ice cream parlors, a furniture store, a tavern and a pizzeria make up the village square and its war memorial, over which the Methodist church steeple towers. On the Fourth of July, most of the town gathers on the school lawn or just across the street to watch the annual fireworks show.
But there have always been schools, and students, and state testing — and football. For decades, the Durand Bulldogs dominated the town’s own headlines, a football juggernaut that regularly swept its division. And even though the program has struggled through much of this decade, residents still remember the glory days.
“We need positive stories,” Waller said. “This is a good school district. There are great teachers here.”
Talk of the town
“I think they’re disappointed. That’s the main thing,” said Heather Lindroth, a server at the Hearth & Garden gift and coffee shop in downtown Durand.
Lindroth was speaking of the ladies, better known as “The View,” who stop by every morning for coffee and gossip.
But it’s not just the ladies, she said. Meier and Bland have been “the talk of the town.”
Lindroth attended Durand schools through sixth grade before being home-schooled. Those are really the only two choices in the little village, since the closest private schools are in Rockford, Freeport or Beloit, Wis.
For a few parents, a private school doesn’t look like such a bad idea anymore.
“I’ve considered it,” said Sharon Wegler, whose daughter attends Durand High School. She moved to Durand four years ago, drawn primarily, she said, by the reputation of the school district, which graduated 79.7 percent of its students in 2007-08. But after the accusations against Bland and Meier, she’s frustrated by what she sees as a lack of response by the administration and the school board.
She wants the board to adopt policies that prohibit any teacher from being alone with a student, one that requires drug testing of teachers and staff. She’s also angry that the district is “reactive instead of proactive.”
“They should have programs in place to teach people how to recognize the signs of abuse and who to contact when they see those signs,” Wegler said. “And not ones that are taught by the principal, but by real, outside experts.”
Durand School Board President Ed Johnston said he and the board are working on policy revisions. He hopes they will be ready to be presented to the public when the board meets Dec. 14.
But that’s all he would say.
Superintendent Doug DeSchepper said the district performs background checks on all teachers. He then referred further inquiries to the prepared statement he released Dec. 1.
DeSchepper said he couldn’t even confirm how long Meier worked at the district because it was a “personnel issue.”
DeSchepper isn’t the only one unwilling or unable to talk about what happened.
Common was the response given by Betty Rhyner, an administrative assistant at Durand State Bank, a 52-year-old institution that underwrites much of the business in town and publishes a community newsletter in which financial tips and ads for services are sandwiched between Boy Scout Troop 29’s fundraising drive
“I don’t want to comment,” she said, her voice quavering. “It’s ... I just don’t.”
Waller doesn’t hide her community pride. You can see her at the village fireworks show every year sporting a red, white and blue wig while she takes collections for the next year’s show.
She and her husband, Ken, wear Bulldog blue. Stickers boasting the names of their grandchildren and the sports they play are on the back windows of their minivan.
They speak proudly of the “judges, doctors, lawyers and business leaders” who have graduated from the high school.
Parents and village residents were infuriated after Bland’s arrest and demanded a response from school administrators.
Waller was among those who signed a petition asking that the School Board meet with them and explain what corrective steps would be taken.
It can happen anywhere
“Most people are just asking how something like this can happen,” police Chief Bob Corwin said.
He heads a department of five volunteer officers and, along with the director of village public works and the treasurer/administrative assistant, is one of the three people employed full time by the village.
Most afternoons, the chief takes his squad car to the school building and watches while the students get on their buses or walk toward their homes at the end of the school day.
“Yes, it was devastating,” he says while he stands on the corner of Cedar and South streets watching the students head for home. “But something like this can happen anywhere. It happened here, but it can happen anywhere.”
Mike Wiser can be reached at (815) 987-1410 or email@example.com.
Who they are: Jennifer Bland, 23, and Brett Meier, 41, former Durand High School teachers charged with sexual misconduct crimes.
Specifics: Authorities say Bland had inappropriate sexual relations with as many as six students. Meier was charged with possession of child pornography, solicitation of a child and distribution of harmful materials.
The fallout: The allegations have caused controversy in Durand, population 1,100, where the school district is the largest employer.
What to expect: Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato said investigations in small communities require a different touch, at times, than those done in metro areas. “You have to be realistic about the facts of where this is taking place and what it means to people,”
Community ties: Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro, whose office was called in to assist the Durand Police Department with the investigation, believes the closeness of the community helped investigators. “It’s probably a benefit. These people feel strongly about their community and want to help out. ... The people we talked to were very forthcoming.”
Next court dates: Dec. 23 for Bland, Jan. 7 for Meier.