‘It’s a Culture, Not an Incident’: One Lake Bluff Native Continues to Fight for Answers
In response to resurfaced allegations regarding a former staff member, LFHS alumnus John Bollman refuses to wait patiently for change.
March 19, 2021
John Bollman considers a defining childhood memory of his to be one that he misremembered: the production of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.
“From what we gathered at the time, Robert Redford was going to come to Lake Forest with actress Mary Tyler Moore to make this great movie,” Bollman said. “We thought they wanted to do a movie about Lake Forest because it’s where we lived, and they wanted to show the world how great it was to live where we live.”
Now a Texas resident and advocate for students of LFHS, the Class of ‘87 graduate recognizes what Redford’s academy award-winning film was trying to say about loss, trauma, and the suburban experience.
“If you watch that movie now and think that’s what it’s actually about—Lake Forest being so great—then we’re not on the same page,” he said with a chuckle.
The resurfaced sexual misconduct allegations concerning former theater staff member David Miller explain why Bollman can’t let go of Lake Forest just yet. The allegations, including sexual contact, inappropriate instant messaging, and providing alcohol to students, drove him and many others to demand Miller’s name be removed from the Wall of Fame and black box theater.
A victim of childhood abuse himself, Bollman battled his former Lake Bluff Middle School district once before, resulting in six individual settlements totaling over $1 million.
Bollman says the handling of his case and the Miller allegations have frustrated him as both a victim and community member.
“There’s barely any acknowledgement,” he said. “ Lake Bluff paid so much money to me and the other victims of Charles Ritz. It all could have been settled for a sincere apology and a clear plan on how they would do better in the future.”
Bollman has now committed himself to doing what Redford only scratched the surface of in his film: starting productive conversations in communities like Lake Forest, even when others find it “inconvenient.”
“Go watch Ordinary People,” he said, “and then you’ll understand why we don’t like to talk about stuff like this. It’s a phenomenon that still exists on the North Shore; we just don’t like to talk about bad things, and that needs to change.”
“That starts with us.”
A “missed opportunity”
The District 115 Board of Education met with Rebecca Veidlinger and Howard Kallem of Rebecca Leitman Veidlinger, Esq., PLLC on Feb. 8 to discuss the findings in their 52-page independent report regarding the Miller allegations. The claims, as documented in the report, include, “inappropriate and sexualized comments and communications, providing alcohol to students, giving students massages in his home, open-mouth kissing, and sexualized full-body hugging.”
In an executive summary, the firm states the District had “no knowledge of allegations” prior to 2009 “such that [they] would have been in a position to respond.” The summary also concludes that they were “impressed by the District’s commitment to examine the circumstances surrounding the allegations.”
However, in her comments during the board meeting, Veidlinger called the administration’s initial investigation “fairly minimal.”
Veidlinger referred to the faults in the handling of the allegations as “missed opportunities,” saying that the District could have done more to properly assess the situation at the time.
“It was a missed opportunity to take measures to prevent similar misconduct by other employees, a missed opportunity to review policies and procedures, a missed opportunity to examine complaint-reporting mechanisms, a missed opportunity to examine the dynamics of the theater department…and a missed opportunity to provide training to students and staff,” she said.
Bollman, who referred to the report on Facebook as “an embarrassment to all who participated,” doesn’t believe the District was completely unaware until 2009.
“They hired someone to investigate—of course, investigate means to look for the truth—and they didn’t look for the truth,” Bollman said. “This was not a report; accurately, it should be described as Defense Exhibit A. It’s all part of their defense strategy: delay and deny. They hire someone to go look for the truth, and then they say ‘no one knew anything’. I just don’t believe that’s accurate.”
He continued, “If you FOIA’d [Miller’s] record, you’d know this happened multiple times: he came onto students…he was instant messaging a student, and this was known information by other students. I just don’t understand how it wasn’t known.”
Melissa Oakley, chief communications officer for the District, claims that the school’s first responsibility is maintaining the safety and well-being of the community.
“We believe it is critical for individuals to feel safe coming forward without fear of retaliation and with confidence that their allegations will be taken seriously,” she said.
According to Oakley, the Veidlinger investigation came as a direct response to community-wide requests and an alum’s complaint that Miller had targeted him in an inappropriate student-to-staff member relationship.
“The Board opted to pursue a thorough third-party review – after local police concluded that no charges would be filed due to the passage of the statute of limitations – to fully assess the District’s past responses to allegations of inappropriate conduct and to examine the District’s current policies and procedures for responding to such allegations in a timely and appropriate manner,” said Oakley.
But Bollman’s skepticism continued, as did that of many members in the ‘Scout Pride’ Facebook group, a private forum committed to promoting discussion regarding predatory abuse at LFHS.
As an admin for nearly 3,000 members, Bollman has made ‘Scout Pride’ an avenue for communication with current students, former students, and survivors of any kind — all whom he feels deserve answers.
Class of ‘88 graduate and former Tech Crew member Amy Souders says she appreciates the group’s effort to resurface previously hidden instances of trauma.
“The ‘Scout Pride’ group created a much-needed forum to shine light on issues of sexual misconduct and harassment that I believe the District has sought to cover up and deny,” she said.
Like Bollman, Souders was confused by the wording of information in the independent investigation.
“The report was not thorough and is not sufficient,” she said. “Even with these credible accusations, [the district] is still not taking full accountability, which is truly disheartening.”
Said Bollman: “If [the Veidlinger firm] thinks this report helps victims, they’re completely mistaken.”
“Only the tip of the iceberg”
On June 29, around the start of the Veidlinger firm’s investigation, Bollman created a post in ‘Scout Pride’ detailing his FOIA request for the names of eight former LFHS staff members, who he accused of disregarding proper student-teacher boundaries in their time of employment.
In a statement made during the Feb. 8 Board of Education meeting, Bollman said his FOIA requests were denied for being “unreasonably burdensome.”
Oakley says the District simply asked him to reframe his requests.
“We provided records for the first request and provided an opportunity to resubmit the second request,” she said. “We await Mr. Bollman’s response.”
“It’s very clear to me that almost 40 years of abuse by David Miller was only the tip of the iceberg. I suggest there was a pattern that, in many cases, condoned and turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of students,” he said in a statement to the Board.
Bollman primarily worries that staff members are allowed to “quietly resign” when faced with damning allegations. According to the Veidlinger report, Miller in 2009 “requested the privilege of resigning and leaving the District quietly” in an effort to escape the public eye before it could be turned to him.
Senior Callan Shanahan, a current student in the theater department, finds it “unsettling” that resignation is an option under these circumstances.
“These instructors should not be entitled to the privilege of resigning, much less a pension or a theater named after them,” said Shanahan.
Charles Ritz, Bollman’s former teacher and abuser at Lake Bluff Middle School, also resigned inconspicuously following his accusations.
“[Ritz] got caught, they let him resign in the middle of the night, and he went to California and simply continued to abuse kids,” he said.
The Veidlinger report refers to this as a perceived “lack of transparency” on the District’s part, which students indicate may be a cause for controversy and rumors spreading throughout the community.
As said in the report: “Several [students] expressed concern about possible situations in which a teacher accused of misconduct “disappears,” with no explanation to the community as to whether the employee was found to have engaged in the misconduct and dismissed, whether the employee resigned because of the allegations, or whether the teacher left for other reasons.”
Bollman believes this perceived lack of transparency perpetuates a “pattern” of behavior, allowing former staff members to leave without community awareness or a call for involvement.
The report briefly details two recent incidents of employees accused of contacting current and former students. Though the District took action in both instances, one staff member was written to have “resigned” from their position while the other simply “left,” making it unclear whether or not the investigation called for further detail.
Oakley urges the community “not to confuse adherence to employment law and privacy requirements with a lack of transparency.”
“This current administration has worked tirelessly to demonstrate zero tolerance for misconduct,” she said. “We have informed the community of our stance, encouraged reporting of any concerns and provided anonymous channels to do so, shared concerns we’ve received with DCFS and the authorities, investigated, and taken action, as appropriate.”
Still, the distrust between some community members and the District is evident. Many view the aforementioned “disappearances” as a soft solution to a hard problem, one that must be tackled publicly and with collaboration.
“It’s a culture, not an incident,” said Bollman. “To believe it was just an incident is a failure.”
“We all have to work together”
As part of their investigation, the Veidlinger team conducted interviews with students, alumni, parent leaders, and staff members in an effort to gauge the current climate surrounding sexual misconduct.
According to their findings, only 61% of students said they would confide in a trusted adult, and roughly half of the respondents claimed to know how to properly report an instance of sexual assault to the school.
“If [LFHS doesn’t] look at that and think ‘wow we’ve failed’, what are they doing?” said Bollman. “What are we doing?”
Oakley claims that the District takes the results seriously.
“Two-thirds of the students who responded to the independent survey reported that they trusted District leaders in our efforts to create a safe learning environment and one in which they know they can report their concerns without fear of retaliation and with confidence that their allegations will be taken seriously,” she said.
“Two-thirds is a start — but we will not be satisfied until all of our students feel the same way. There is nothing more important than that.”
Despite the critical statistics, the report highlights the district’s recent efforts to mend this distrust. These include policy revisions, boundary awareness training for staff members, and clarifying procedures.
Still, the Veidlinger team recommended 13 additional steps be taken for climate improvement, one of them being to listen to Bollman’s suggestions: restructure the role of the nondiscrimination compliance officer and create a system of support for affected alumni.
In terms of an in-school solution, Bollman warns that systems entirely reliant on victim reporting are unrealistic. Findings from RAINN.org shows that only 230 out of every 1,000 assaults are reported to police. He, as someone who experienced assault first-hand, empathizes with those who choose to stay silent.
“When you are abused as a child, your brain shuts down,” he said. “There is so much guilt and so much shame, and it’s no one’s fault. Your brain is telling you ‘keep your mouth shut, don’t say a word’. So the idea that kids are gonna come running from these events waving their hands saying, ‘so-and-so did this to me’, it’s just not gonna happen. To hope that’s going to be the case is naive.”
Bollman noted that an increased understanding of mandated reporting is essential, as Miller’s wife’s position in a local church clergy would have classified her as such a reporter.
Above all, he believes this must be a collective effort from the administration, the Board, and the community as a whole.
“We all have to work together,” he said. “Anyone can have the right intentions, but the execution can still be poor if there isn’t any cooperation.”
Oakley says the District is willing to do just that.
“While the report outlines the many steps the District has already taken to enhance our responsiveness to allegations of inappropriate behavior, we are committed to taking further action to ensure we maintain a safe learning environment for all,” she said. “The safety and well-being of our students is our highest responsibility as educators and school leaders.”
Class of ‘86 alum and ‘Scout Pride’ member Megan Andress has a suggestion for prevention that she hopes to see embedded into the ninth grade curriculum.
“Beyond the recommendations in the report,” she said, “I would like to see sexual harassment of students by staff members added into the Wellness for Life curriculum so that every freshmen is taught what the appropriate boundaries between students and teachers are, how to identify grooming and other inappropriate behavior, and where to go to report concerns or violations with staff.”
Andress continued: “We need to do much more to protect students and prevent something like this from ever happening again,” she said. “Given the school’s history as well as recent issues, I hope LFHS will consider developing a specific educator sexual misconduct policy and establish a student protection team to oversee new policy and procedure development.”
One student in the Veidlinger report stated that, “It will take a long time for the District to counter the impressions from its previous failures to take action … the District has to be prepared to take sustained action to change culture and impressions.”
Bollman agrees, saying that these impressions will “remain consistent until the community—the leadership—decides it will be different.”
“My ultimate goal is to help victims,” he said. “This isn’t a short term play; the change is going to be incremental. It might be the Glenview School District that reads about what happened at Lake Forest and changes their policies based on that. To me, that’s a success.”
Bollman plans to take his concerns and research to a courtroom in the near future, claiming that the administration and Board of Education have ultimately failed in consoling former students and victims.
“I know the pain of revictimization,” he said. “It’s a trauma like no other to be abused as a child. The pain and courage it takes to come forward is substantial…it’s potentially more damaging than the original abuse. I will continue to support the victims as I can.”
“I want to be the reason that every future predator knows not to choose Lake Forest High School.”
The Confidential Reporting Tool (CRT) is an internal notification system for the LFHS community that informs school officials about threats to our safety and security. Students can access the CRT on their Chromebooks or the LFHS Homepage.