During a Jan. 27 regular District 200 school board meeting, a large contingent of Oak Park and River Forest High School community members expressed support for tenured special education teacher and former girls’ cross-country assistant coach Danielle Dobias.
In December, Dobias was terminated for reasons that have not been disclosed by the school district or Dobias’s lawyer. Kathleen Schrobilgen, whose two children were involved in OPRF’s cross-country team and is a close friend of Dobias’s, said that she saw the letter the district sent explaining its initial decision to terminate the teacher.
During public comments at last Friday’s meeting, Schrobilgen said the district explained it was terminating Dobias “for ‘insubordination’ for not attending meetings last fall,” but that the district “failed to inform [Dobias] of [the meetings] in a timely fashion.”
In a phone interview Monday, Schrobilgen said the letter also indicated that Dobias “would not answer all of the board’s questions at the meetings she did attend.” Those meetings took place last summer, Schrobilgen said.
Earlier this year, the district reversed its initial decision to terminate and instead opted to suspend Dobias without pay. According to numerous sources, those meetings referenced in the termination letter pertained to Dobias and Thomas Tarrant, the girls’ cross-country coach and special education behavioral interventionist.
In 2015, Dobias filed a federal discrimination lawsuit that named OPRF District 200, Tarrant, and OPRF athletic director John Stelzer as defendants. In the lawsuit, Dobias claims that she was subjected to sexual and retaliatory discrimination, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The complaints made by Dobias in that federal lawsuit date back to at least January 2012. Dobias claimed that Tarrant made multiple sexual advances toward her and that, when she rejected them, he then began “a pattern of retaliatory freeze-out” against her by deliberately withholding behavior intervention resources from her classroom and writing poor reviews of her coaching performance.
Dobias also alleged that Tarrant stalked and harassed her, and that D200 officials and Stelzer, in particular, continuously refused to discipline Tarrant.
In September 2013, Tarrant reportedly filed two separate written complaints against Dobias accusing her of “verbal and physical aggression,” “violation of [a] non-contact agreement,” and “assault,” among other allegations.
Tarrant’s allegations against Dobias prompted the teacher to file a state lawsuit against Tarrant, Stelzer and D200 in Cook County Circuit Court in 2013 “for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” according to the Cook County Record. Dobias sought more than $50,000 in damages.
The defamation lawsuit was dismissed by a state trial court, but a state appellate court eventually reversed that ruling, sending the case back to the lower court to be heard again. Both Dobias’s federal and state defamation lawsuits are pending.
According to federal court documents filed Jan. 25, attorneys for both Dobias and the district have filed a joint motion agreeing to a request to stay an administrative hearing and the two lawsuits, pending mediation.
In a phone interview on Monday, Schrobilgen said that in the summer of 2015 she and several other cross-country parents met with OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse about Tarrant’s behavior toward Dobias.
“The district said nothing,” Schrobilgen said. “The only thing Mr. Rouse ever said to us [about the Dobias case] was there’s nothing to it, it’s been dismissed. Mr. Rouse and [David] Ruhland [District 200’s HR director at the time] didn’t seemed concerned at all.”
D200 officials have not commented directly about the case, citing board policy that prohibits them from publicly discussing personnel matters. Dobias’s lawyer also declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
Schrobilgen was among at least a dozen community members, parents, students and former students who spoke in support of Dobias, with some also criticizing OPRF’s current methods of responding to sexual harassment claims.
Former OPRF student Conner Davis said that Dobias, his former teacher, offered him important advice at a critical time in his life.
“The guidance I received from her wasn’t what I wanted to hear but it was, ultimately, what I needed to hear,” he said at last Friday’s meeting. “I still think of her as the strongest mentor I’ve had.”
“There’s pretty pervasive sexism in the athletic department,” said Schrobilgen on Monday. “It’s run by males, for males.”
Oak Park resident Tanya Prewitt-White, an expert in sport psychology who has researched social justice in sports, said that she appreciates the district’s current attempts to overhaul its sexual misconduct policies — reform efforts that stem from a separate case of alleged sexual assault among students that happened last August — but she argued that more could be done.
“First rights of alleged victims are never highlighted,” she said, adding that the procedure by which victims of sexual assaults report allegations of abuse should be clearer and more transparent.