Fired D-65 Teacher Who Dosed Kids With Melatonin Sues To Get Job Back

EVANSTON, IL — A longtime tenured teacher at Evanston/Skokie School District 65 who was fired last year is appealing to the courts to get her job back.

Cheree Bertalan, 53, was dismissed in December 2021 in connection with a July 2018 incident that occurred at her Rogers Park condominium during a two-night sleepover with her son and two 10-year-old boys on his traveling baseball team, court records show. .

In that incident, according to the uncontested facts laid out in an impartial hearing officer’s report, Bertalan gave the boys melatonin when they were still awake at 4 am on 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 Children and Family Services, or DCFS, that someone had filed a complaint of abuse and neglect against her as a result of her. conduct at the sleepover.

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The next month, Cook County prosecutors filed eight criminal charges against her — five counts of child endangerment and three counts of battery.

That same day — a week before school was due to start — Bertalan requested a 12-week leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, scheduled to start on the first day of school..

According to court filings, the DCFS investigation in November 2018 found that abuse or neglect were “indicated,” a finding that Bertalan appealed.

At a one-day bench 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 shouldn’t force a child to eat. vegetables, let alone,” according to the hearing officer’s report.

In August 2019, the board adopted a resolution recommending Bertalan’s dismissal, describing her conduct as “irremediable cause” for termination. In response, Bertalan requested that a hearing with an impartial hearing officer, records show.

That same month, DCFS voluntarily unfounded the report after an administrative law judge heard her 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. He released a final report on the matter in November 2021.

“It is undisputed that [Bertalan] never reported either the DCFS or criminal charges to the District,” Simon said.

“[Bertalan’s] continuous withholding of information from the District irreparably damaged her relationship with administrative personnel, according to [the District],” Simon said. “It says she eroded any trust the District might have had in her ability to act professionally and honestly. It also asserts she impaired the District’s ability to carry out its stated policy concerning professionalism of its teachers.”

While Simon found that the board had not been able to establish that it had been harmed by Bertalan’s failure to notify it of the pending DCFS investigation, he did determine that, at the very least, Bertalan had demonstrated a severe lack of judgment that reflects poorly. on her ability to be a classroom teacher.

“[District 65] can no longer rely on her to exercise the level of judgment necessary for the safety and welfare of the children in her charge,” Simon found. “It did not matter that. [Bertalan’s] conduct was not at the school or while she was performing any duties in connection with her teaching position. Because it dealt with how she handled children under her supervision, there is a sufficient nexus to her job.”

Bertalan notified a union representative the same day she learned of the state child welfare probe and was told that it was her decision whether or not she wanted 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 disregards her professional and ethical obligations by demonstrating poor judgement with children entrusted in her care, dishonesty in her dealings with District administration, and refusal to acknowledge the inappropriateness of her conduct and its damaging effect, ” Simon said. “Asserting that no additional warning would have been effective, [the district] maintains dismissal was the district’s only recourse and asks that it be upheld.”

But Bertalan denied that her actions violated community standards and noted that the district does not have an explicit policy that requires staff to notify the administration when they are facing pending criminal or child neglect charges, according to Simon’s report. She also argued the DCFS finding of abuse, which was voluntarily unfounded, and criminal charges, of which she was found not guilty, should not be held against her.

On Dec. 16, 2021, the board held a special meeting with only one item on the agenda: “dismissal of tenured teacher.”

Board members voted 5-0, with two members absent, to “adopt the Resolution and order to dismiss the tenured teacher discussed in previous closed sessions,” according to the minutes.

The district did not include a copy of the resolution approved by the board or identify Bertalan as the teacher it was terminating, but it was later filed in court when she sued to get her job back. It shows that the board overruled the hearing officer’s decision on the matter of whether Bertalan’s failure to notify district officials constituted a second offense worthy of dismissal.

In January, Bertalan filed a complaint for administrative review in Cook County court, asking a judge to find that her firing was improper and to order her to be reinstated.

According to her suit, filed on Bertalan’s behalf by Northbrook-based attorney Steven Glink, the board’s decision to fire Bertalan is “contrary to established law and against the manifest weight of the evidence” for at least one of the below reasons.

  • she had worked at the district for 25 years without a single complaint,
  • the “vast majority” of the school community supported her keeping her job,
  • that DCFS eventually voluntarily unfounded the abuse allegations,
  • that the boys did not attend District 65 schools,
  • that the board failed to prove anything she did harmed students, staff or the community,
  • that the board and independent hearing officer both improperly determined her judgment affected her classroom teaching duties,
  • that various courts have found more egregious acts could be remediated,
  • that there was no specific policy that required her to notify administrators about the status of the DCFS probe,
  • that district administrators never asked her directly about the DCFS investigation so therefore she never directly lied about it,
  • or that case law has found “one incident of poor judgment can be remediable where the tenured teacher realizes the district between conduct as a teacher and conduct as a private citizen.”

In response, the district’s attorneys echoed the impartial hearing officer’s conclusion that giving melatonin to the boys without their parents consent constituted sufficient cause to dismiss her.

Perhaps Bertalan acted out of desperation on the first night of the sleepover, but the argument holds no water after that, especially considering that she had spoken to the other boys’ parents before the second night, according to the hearing officer’s report.

“She deprived the parents of any opportunity to object to her conduct,” Simon said. “The fact that they all phoned [Bertalan] to complain the following day suggests they would not have approved had they been asked.”

Bertalan testified that she only gave the melatonin to her own son after speaking with her physician, admitting she had no knowledge as to whether the other children had any medical issues that could be complicated by ingesting the substance.

She also admitted that she had read news reports of criminal charges filed against a trio of teachers at a Des Plaines day care center who had dosed children with melatonin without their parents permission, according to the hearing officer. That incident generated widespread media coverage just a few months before Bertalan dosed her sons companion.

According to the school district, Bertalan had a financial incentive not to tell district officials about the DCFS investigation, since it would have led to her being placed on unpaid leave.

“Had a reporter not contacted the District about the allegations against [Bertalan], [the District] suggests it might not have learned of the allegations against her,” according to Amy Dickenson, an attorney for the district from the Franczek law firm.

“Her claim that because no written policy or directive that she informs the District of the DCFS indicated finding existed, she had obligation to do so, is ludicrous,” Dickenson argued. “An educator’s obligation to inform the District of an indicated finding against that educator is so fundamental to one’s role as an educator that no policy is needed.”

The district also argued that Bertalan’s lack of remorse and refusal to admit misconduct is evidence that her conduct was irremediable, which is among legal standards for firing tenured teachers under Illinois case law.

Giving the teacher a warning in this case “renders meaningless” the expectation that teachers will be professional, honest and forthcoming with administrators and would set a precedent that anytime teachers are issued a DCFS finding of indicated abuse they can avoid discipline by holding it from administrators , according to the district.

“Allowing Bertalan to return to the classroom, after she acknowledged no wrongdoing on her part, would send a dangerous and untenable message to the District community,” the district’s attorney said.

“Thus, even if Bertalan’s conduct might be of a type that could warrant a warning for some teachers, her unwillingness to accept the magnitude of the District’s concerns,” they argued, “and her continued pattern of 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 set for Oct. 19 at the Daley Center in Chicago.

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