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Too close to kids?

Parents are mad that man was in mental health facility just before working at school

JENNIFER WATTERS, a Walworth Elementary parent, spoke to the school board Jan. 21 regarding safety policy changes. Watters, who substitute teaches at the school, said her primary concern is the safety of all the students.

January 22, 2013 | 03:44 PM
WALWORTH — Parents at Walworth Elementary School are concerned that a man who was recently working in the school kitchen was in a mental health facility only a few weeks earlier.

"How is there no policy on this at the school? At any job you need a criminal background check," Vanessa Tipps, mother of a Walworth student, said. "Some people feel that a school could have a felon there. I don't personally believe it."

After being found "guilty but not guilty by mental disease or defect" for four felony charges, Michael Kelley-Dellach spent more than a year in mental health facilities before the court issued a conditional release Oct. 17, 2012.

He was working in the school's kitchen a little more than a month later on Nov. 29.

Most personnel employed at the Walworth Elementary School have to go through a background check upon being hired. Most hires are approved by the administration and school board.

This was not the case when Kelley-Dellach was hired.

Laura Kelley, Kelley-Dellach's adoptive mother, is the kitchen supervisor. She hired her son to work in the kitchen.

District Administrator Pam Knorr said this is standard procedure.

"She hires her own subs because sometimes she needs a sub and sometimes she doesn't need a sub," Knorr said.

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The school board has a policy on hiring procedures, and it explicitly states the "administrator, in conjunction with the principal, are solely responsible for the hiring of all support staff members."

For hire

Current school board policy 513 states "The criminal background report of adults recommended for employment as ... substitutes for certified employees, substitutes for noncertified employees and advisors or coaches for extracurricular assignments must be obtained and reviewed by the administration prior to finalizing the decision to employ."

Knorr said that Kelley-Dellach was considered a noncertified employee while he worked in the school's kitchen.

Policy 513, regarding pre-employment background checks, was reviewed and revised Feb. 16, 2009. However, no background check was completed or reviewed for Kelley-Dellach.

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In fact, no personnel file was kept for him or any of the substitute employees at the school.

Knorr said substitute teachers must supply a copy of a license to the school, but the school keeps no other records of temporary employees.

Since Kelley-Dellach worked at the school, Knorr said the administration has started a new policy this month.

"We have instituted, now, background checks on everybody that subs," she said Jan. 18. "We did (the change) as of finding out that (Kelley-Dellach) had, you know. I don't know (what charges he has)."

Knorr said the current policy approved by the school board in 2009 already had that specific provision in place.

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Prior to the change during the week of Jan. 7, Knorr said only permanent employees went through a pre-employment background check.

Parents react

Tipps and Tami Nottolini, both mothers of Walworth students, met with Knorr and Principal Pam Larson on Jan. 16.

Nottolini said in a Jan. 18 email that Knorr promised a list of safety concerns would be addressed.

The list includes creating policies for children walking outside of the building for recess, video recording at entry doors and fencing for the playground area.

"There are things that have been promised over the years that need to be publicized," Tipps said.

Their biggest request was that background checks be made on all adults coming in contact with children.

"I'm looking for policy changes," Tipps said. "I wasn't going to fight this, but I was told by many people that they wanted answers. If we don't get changes, I guess I'll rip my kid out of that school."

Tipps said she was naive to not ask about policies before enrolling her children at the school.

Both Nottolini and Tipps are upset parents weren't notified of Kelley-Dellach's presence at the school until Jan. 14.

"Pam Knorr did send a letter to all parents, a very vague letter," Tipps said. "It doesn't even say anything. What does that mean?"

The letter, from Knorr and Larson, apologizes for the distress Kelley-Dellach's hiring caused the community.

"An employee's son was hired to assist the food service staff as a sub employee," the letter states. "When it was brought to my attention, I dealt with the situation immediately, and he ... never will be again under our district's employ."

The letter doesn't tell parents why his position at the school would cause distress. During an interview Jan. 18, Knorr said she didn't know what charges were previously brought against Kelley-Dellach.

Julie Ford, mother of two Walworth students, called the letter "evasive at best."

"This letter was so vague that it caused confusion and even more trepidation for those who had no knowledge of the incident that prompted it," she said. "For those of us who did know of the incident, the letter brought anger and frustration. The letter exhibited no responsibility or accountability for the blatant lack of due diligence on the part of our administrator."

Ford said the letter was more alarming for the way it was written, mentioning the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"The letter did not explain to parents and staff that the administrator knew the man would be on staff, and she chose not to do a background check," she said. "The only thing admitted in the letter is allowing nepotism among the kitchen staff. Surely that isn't alarming enough to follow a paragraph about the Newtown tragedy."

Felony charges

Records obtained through both the Rock County Courthouse and the Walworth County Courthouse show that Kelley-Dellach was first detained Jan. 26, 2011 in Walworth County. After pleading not guilty and being released on bond, Kelley-Dellach was arrested again April 8, 2011, in Rock County.

Both times, police attempted to conduct a traffic stop after seeing Kelley-Dellach speeding. Both times, he drove through multiple communities. In Rock County, police witnessed Kelley-Dellach throw items out the window twice.

When questioned by police, court documents show Kelley-Dellach said he was driving around "to see the world."

In Rock County, he was charged with drug paraphernalia possession, a misdemeanor, and three felonies, second degree recklessly endangering safety, fleeing police and bail jumping.

The path to Walworth

In August 2011, Kelley-Dellach was committed to the Winnebago Health Institute. In September 2011, he was found guilty but not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

At that time, Wisconsin Community Service, an advocacy group for those incarcerated, told the court they could "no longer recommend community placement."

"In-patient treatment will increase the likelihood of Mr. Kelley-Dellach's success in the community in the future," a WCS letter to Circuit Court Judge Richard Werner states.

Kelley-Dellach was sent to Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. After about a year in the facility, he was approved for conditional release Aug. 15, 2012.

As part of the conditional release agreement established by the court, Kelley-Dellach would have to continue to take medications and meet with a psychiatrist.

The conditional release plan, dated Sept. 21, 2012, states he was "anticipating possible employment with Walworth Joint District #1 working in food service for approximately 30 hours per week."

A conditional release plan stipulates what type of treatment the defendant, in this case Kelley-Dellach, must continue to go through once released from the facility. It is similar to a probationary status.

Oct. 17, 2012, Kelley-Dellach was released from the mental health facility. On Nov. 29, he was working at the school.

Knorr said he was never hired as a permanent employee, nor was his permanent employment a plan she knew about.

Who's responsible?

"There are some parents that want something done to whoever is in charge of how this went down," Tipps said. "My big thing is that I want other safety things taken care of at the school."

However, Kelley-Dellach was never convicted of a felony because of his mental state, and state and federal discrimination laws prohibit employment discrimination based on mental disability.

The school has the same discrimination policy. "Walworth Jt. District #1 does not discriminate on ... physical, learning, emotional or mental disability."

However Wisconsin Act 83, enacted in 2011, states that schools and educational facilities are allowed to discriminate based on conviction and arrest records.

During the school board meeting, Jan. 21, Ford asked the board to take parents' concerns seriously.

"Is it not the board's responsibility to hold our administrator accountable for her actions or in this case, inactions?" Ford said. "Oversight is her role ... oversight of all staff in the school is her role. This oversight has not been carried out."

School Board President Kelly Freeman said it is the board's job to write and approve policy.

"Our main job is to write and approve policy," she said. "We try to follow it. If not, we try to take action on that."

However, neither Freeman nor the rest of the board was familiar with the policy already in place that mandates background checks for all employees, permanent or temporary, certified or noncertified.

Gretch Hadosh, mother of Walworth students, said she heard from three or four different faculty members at the school about safety concerns.

"The staff and teachers are afraid to come forward and make a stand about this issue," she said. "The fact that I've heard, that says to me that the community has been contacted. This is an issue of leadership."

School board reacts

The first school board meeting since Kelley-Dellach was hired was Jan. 21.

The morning of the meeting, Knorr called to ask the Regional News why Kelley-Dellach's employment at the school was news.

The number of parents at that night's meeting show the value in the story.

Freeman said discussion of personnel should be brought to the attention of the administration at another time.

"We are all here for the same reasons," Freeman said. "That's for the children. We want them to be safe, we want our faculty to be safe."

The board invited village police chief Chris Severt and secuirty adviser Tom Hausner to discuss the school's security plan at the meeting. Severt said many of the safety suggestions the parents have are not possible, such as the fence.

"We, as professionals, look beyond what you're looking at as parents," he said. "It may not be against code (to have a fence around the perimeter of the playground), but it would inhibit emergency vehicle access."

Pat Hubertz, board vice president, said it takes a while for changes to be made at the board.

"The administration is in charge of having the safety response and coordination plan for the district," Hubertz said. "The board, our oversight, is reviewing the proposals for safety plans. We have to go through that."

Over the next few months, he said the board would review the policies in place and make changes.

"The sluggishness, if you will, of the public political organization happens," he said. "We are elected by all of you to represent you. We need to hear from you. You give us what we need to be working for."

What's next

Ford, Tipps and Nottolini said they would all be following the board closely during the next few months.

"My reaction to last night's meeting is a mixed one," Ford said. "I was pleased to see so many parents that rearranged schedules to attend ... I was also pleased to see so many individuals speaking out and not being shut down by the board as I have been in the past when asking questions about policy ... Although I would hope that the community outpour would warrant some action against both the kitchen supervisor and Pam Knorr for their negligence, given the egregious errors our administrator has made in the past without consequence, I don't expect it will occur."

Nottolini said parents should be notified of any policy changes, especially regarding safety in the building.

"There is nothing greater that this administration can do than to keep our children safe," she said. "It sickens me the lack of procedure and neglect that has taken place. I would love to be part of a school that is best known for our safety than any academic accolade out there."

Richard Ford, Julie's husband, said the administration has to regain trust from parents.

"How can we trust the administration?" he said. "The administration has a history of ruling with fear, of silencing the staff to the point that no one wants to take a stand."


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