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Board of Education v. Sickley





Appeal from the Circuit Court of La Salle County; the Hon. Thomas R. Flood, Judge, presiding.


Adelbert E. Sickley, a school counselor, has appealed from an order of the circuit court of La Salle County which reversed an administrative decision of a hearing officer of the Illinois State Board of Education as against the manifest weight of the evidence. The hearing officer had ruled that the Tonica boards of education had not proved good cause for discharging Adelbert Sickley as a tenured teacher and that Sickley would not be dismissed. We reverse the circuit court and affirm the administrative decision of the hearing officer.

Sickley, age 58, had been employed by the boards of education of the Tonica high school and grade school districts as a guidance counselor for both the elementary and secondary schools, and by the Lostant High School, in the same capacity, from 1970 to 1981. (Lostant's board of education is not a party to this proceeding.) From 1964 to 1970, Sickley had taught in the Tonica schools. In October of 1981, a 10-year-old fifth-grade girl, Audrey Urbanc, was referred to him because she was failing all of her subjects except one and her parents had not responded to deficiency notices. By Sickley's own account, he met with Audrey in his office on October 4, December 4, 10 and 11, and again on January 7, 1982. Sickley saw a need to motivate Audrey to complete her homework each day, and after determining that she was not receiving much attention from her busy parents, he tried to show his personal concern for her progress. He permitted her to sit on his knee while they talked; he hugged her, and when she threw her arms around his neck and cried, he stroked her back, arms and legs. On one occasion she complained of a lump on her hip, and Sickley felt the lump and discovered that it was not tender. Although at one time Sickley stated that he had placed his hand inside the girl's slacks to feel the bump, at the hearing he testified that he felt the lump through her clothing. Audrey testified that he felt her hip both inside and outside her pants. Sickley admitted on the witness stand that he became emotionally involved in Audrey's problem, more as a parent than a counselor, which he later regretted, and he denied that he had any sexual contact with her.

About 1 1/2 weeks after Sickley's last conference with Audrey, she told her parents about her relationship with the counselor and her parents apparently contacted the police. Sickley was charged with the offense of indecent liberties with a child, and he was immediately suspended from his job in the schools. On January 18, 1982, he gave the superintendent of the Tonica schools a written statement describing his relationship with Audrey, in which he admitted that he had violated one of the cardinal rules of counseling in that he had become emotionally involved with a student. Sickley later submitted to a lie detector test, and at the conclusion of the test, he was repeatedly urged to explain what happened to the boards in order to get his job back. He finally wrote out a letter of apology dictated to him by the polygraph examiner. That letter was the subject of an order of suppression in the criminal cause brought against Sickley, and the suppression, on the grounds that it was involuntary, was affirmed on appeal by this court in People v. Sickley (1983), 114 Ill. App.3d 167, 448 N.E.2d 612. The hearing officer found that the letter of apology was not credible under the circumstances.

At the hearing, Audrey testified that Sickley put his hands under her shirt and touched her chest and that he put his hand on her hip inside and outside her pants. The hearing officer stated that he "was not impressed with the credibility of Audrey," and he obviously gave her testimony little weight. On the other hand, the hearing officer stated that he was impressed by Sickley's testimony and with his sincerity. Audrey's parents were not called to testify.

A number of teachers and former students of Sickley testified that he had an excellent reputation for honesty and integrity, and the superintendent of schools for the Lostant school favorably testified at length concerning Sickley's conduct as a counselor. He stated that he encourages faculty members to relate to students on a personal basis, for example, with a pat on the shoulder, and he expressed approval of a personal relationship between a counselor and student.

The superintendent of the Tonica schools, on the other hand, testified that Sickley's conduct was not proper and created an unhealthy dependence between student and counselor. An expert in the field of school counseling testified that physical encounters with students, such as sitting on the counselor's lap, touching the student's leg and back, tickling, and becoming emotionally involved are not professionally accepted counseling practices. Both the expert and the Tonica administrator stated that a counselor should refer suspected child abuse to the proper authorities rather than to put his hand inside the pants of the child to examine a bump on her hip. The Tonica superintendent opined that putting hands inside a child's pants will cause the student to experience "irremedial mental anguish."

The boards of education asserted the following charges as grounds for Sickley's dismissal:

"1. You have acted immorally in that you took indecent liberties with a student under your charge, by lewdly touching and fondling the student.

2. You have acted unprofessionally in that you used highly improper counseling techniques to the detriment of the students under your charge.

3. You have acted in a manner which is not in the best interest of the School District in that your immoral and unprofessional conduct has resulted in irreparable loss of confidence in your future ability to perform your duties as a teacher and counselor."

The hearing officer prepared an 18-page opinion containing his findings and decision. After an exhaustive discussion of the evidence, he concluded that the boards failed to sustain each charge by a preponderance of the evidence. On appeal, we are asked to affirm the hearing officer's decision and to reverse the administrative review order of the circuit court which found that decision to have been contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. The circuit court did not file a memorandum opinion or statement of reasons.

• 1 Section 3-110 of the Administrative Review Law (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 3-110) provides that the findings and conclusions of the administrative agency on questions of fact shall be held to be prima facie true and correct. It is well settled that the circuit court is authorized to set aside such findings only if they are against the manifest weight of the evidence. (Rolando v. School Directors (1976), 44 Ill. App.3d 658, 358 N.E.2d 945.) Furthermore, the duty of the appellate court is the same as that of the circuit court, and we must examine the entire record to ascertain whether the findings and decision of the administrative agency are against the manifest weight of the evidence. (Derringer v. Civil Service Com. (1978), 66 Ill. App.3d 239, 383 N.E.2d 771.) As the court noted in Derringer v. Civil Service Com.:

"[W]e do not reweigh the evidence as we would if we were the original decision-maker, attempting to decide in the first instance whether the party with the burden of proof has proved the material elements of his case by the preponderance of the evidence. Our weighing is done on different scales; our function is merely to decide whether the manifest weight of the evidence of record favors the party who did not prevail before the agency. If it does not, we must affirm, even if we think that the preponderance of the evidence is to the contrary. But if, after a review of all the ...

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