|Leaked scouting report offers painful lesson for some Illinois high school football players
LaSalle-Peru students, parents stung by release of private information about athletes
By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune reporter
9:20 PM CDT, September 12, 2012
— Minutes after Alleman High School drilled LaSalle-Peru 35-0 in the opening game of the football season, the opposing coaches shook hands on the field. Then Alleman coach David DeJaegher delivered unsettling news to LaSalle-Peru coach Joe Sassano.
A few days earlier, DeJaegher said, he had received an anonymous, detailed and sinister scouting report on LaSalle-Peru.
The estimated 10 pages included specifics on the team's offense and defense, and confidential information on the skill levels, strengths and weaknesses of each Cavalier player. It even listed their medical histories and suggested preying on those who had been injured.
"I've never had anything close to this," said DeJaegher, who has coached at the Rock Island Catholic institution for 26 years. "I thought it was weird."
More devious perhaps was that all nine of LaSalle-Peru's opponents received the same material. Then came the latest twist: Last week, the school placed on paid leave a popular teacher who was released as an assistant football coach in May.
While they stopped short of saying the former coach is the target of an investigation, district officials said he has been placed on leave as part of an ongoing probe into the leaked materials.
As the Cavaliers prepare for a Friday night home game against Yorkville, the LaSalle County sheriff is examining the matter. And those who follow LaSalle-Peru's abundant football heritage are left to consider painful lessons about the dark side of competitive sports and how the trust of a community can be shaken.
In LaSalle and neighboring Peru, communities of about 10,000 people each on the Illinois River 90 miles southwest of Chicago, residents at first were reluctant to blame anyone.
"I think the best way to characterize it is that they were shocked," LaSalle-Peru Superintendent Steven Wrobleski said of his meetings with parents and players to announce the leaked information. He sat in his office at the 114-year-old school hours before a game last week against Rochelle Township High School.
"And there was anger that something like this happened," Wrobleski added, "that this information on their kids was shared."
At the center of the controversy is Jacob Burke, who has taught at the high school for almost 12 years and served as an assistant football coach and head track coach. After he was removed from coaching duties at a tense school board meeting in May, Burke remained as a teacher certified in social sciences, physical education and drivers education at the school of about 1,300 students until Sept. 4, Wrobleski said.
"At this point, all I can share is that he's been put on paid leave as part of our ongoing investigation" into the leaked materials, Wrobleski said.
Burke, who has not been publicly accused or charged with any wrongdoing, has been silent. Standing at the front door of his home on a Friday afternoon, he declined to comment and offered the name of his attorney, Dan O'Day. The Peoria lawyer did not return phone calls or emails.
'It's like a sabotage'
The Cavaliers have posted two consecutive losing seasons. This year's team has won a game and lost two, but the school has a rich football history.
LaSalle-Peru, which last went to the playoffs in 2009, has amassed more than 540 wins and plays home games in a renovated stadium built as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s.
Its football team is competitive in the stout Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference, which can send as many as six teams to the state playoffs every year. LaSalle-Peru alums Mike Goff, Mike Kasap, Joe Rutgens and John Skibinski made it to the National Football League — Goff, Rutgens and Skibinski for several seasons. All four names adorn a stadium wall.
But the leaked scouting report has brought other, unwanted attention to the football program.
"It's like a sabotage," parent Tinamarie Weiden said Friday night, leaning on a fence and watching the Rochelle Hubs play LaSalle-Peru. She was among an estimated 200 Cavalier fans who drove about 50 miles to attend the game in Rochelle.
"These kids have worked really hard to get where they're at, and now it's like our privacy was violated," added Weiden, whose twin boys, Cory and Conrad, play for LaSalle-Peru's varsity. "It's almost like all their hard work got undone."
She called the controversy "an unhealthy distraction" that could make Cavalier players suspicious of every opponent.
Nobody from the district has said specifically why Burke was removed as a coach. But at a board meeting May 16, at which Burke and another coach were relieved of their athletic duties by a 6-1 vote, Wrobleski said the district was "moving in a different direction in our coaching philosophy."
But many in town also supported Burke. Local news reports stated that more than 70 people attended the board meeting to support the coaches. Both addressed the school board.
In video from the meeting posted online by the NewsTribune, based in LaSalle, Burke said, "A coach's responsibility is to teach our young how to become great student-athletes" and to prepare them for future adversity.
"We do this," Burke said, "by instilling a work ethic, demanding discipline, teaching sportsmanship, teamwork, praising accomplishments, criticizing poor choices."
Weeks later, school board members reported vandalism against their property, and LaSalle police Chief Robert Uranich said some residents believed it was retaliation for the board's decision on Burke and the other coach.
As outraged as parents are by the recent breach of trust, many perhaps understand that a community's reaction to a display of unscrupulous conduct reveals its character and can offer children a valuable lesson.
Parents and grandparents have declined to comment publicly, tempering their anger with an unshakable interest in fairness and deliberation. Like Weiden, players' families say they don't want to implicate anyone unless facts support it. At least one parent came up to Wrobleski at the Rochelle game and complimented him for how the school handled the mess.
LaSalle County State's Attorney Brian Towne also awaits more facts from Sheriff Thomas Templeton's investigation, which the sheriff said is expected to wrap up this week. But Towne said the leak "kind of enraged me on a multitude of levels," as a LaSalle-Peru parent, an alum who played baseball for the Cavaliers, a sports fan and an elected official.
"Now, in addition to all the concerns I have for all the people involved," Towne said, "it's become a law school problem. 'Here are all the facts. What's the crime?'"
That issue is somewhat murky.
The Illinois School Student Records Act, which aligns with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, prohibits the release of student information that is not found in a school directory or in other commonly circulated materials.
"Any person aggrieved by any violation" or "injured by a willful or negligent violation" of the act can file a lawsuit in county court, according to the law.
The Illinois law also notes that "willful failure to comply" with any section of the act is a "petty offense," but the statute fails to define a petty offense.
Hurting the kids
At Herrcke's Hardware in downtown LaSalle a few hours before the Rochelle game, John Stopa bought a couple of paint brushes and said he, like many, was surprised by the release of the players' information.
"That's kind of like espionage," he said. He compared the situation to the controversy surrounding the NFL's New Orleans Saints, incriminated in a scandal in which management and former players were fined and suspended for participating in a bounty system designed to injure opponents during games.
"That's a professional level," he said. "These are kids, minors."
Stopa, Bill Hubbard, whose family has owned the store since 1897, and employee Al Castelli said the release of the information hurts kids the most.
"You could have a major injury to a student," said Hubbard, an L-P alum, "and that's wrong. Why would anybody do this? It just seems ridiculous."
Almost four months earlier, when the school board released him from coaching, Burke talked about a coach's obligations.
"We have the responsibility to teach (student-athletes) right from wrong," he said in the video, "to be honest with them, care for them and protect them."
LaSalle-Peru lost Friday night's game 22-0 to the Rochelle Hubs.
Two nights later, Tinamarie Weiden's son Conrad, 16, a lineman for the Cavaliers, said he knew Burke but declined to talk about the former coach.
Like many of the players, Conrad is navigating through lessons he perhaps hadn't expected from football, lessons about flawed human nature and a different take on team perseverance.
"We know it's a bad thing," Conrad said of the scouting report. "We've just got to get over it and move on."
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