A turbulent year ended for principal Mary Beth Cunat when, two weeks before the last day of class, she announced her resignation from Wildwood Elementary School on the far northwest side. She made the decision in the wake of parent outrage—and even threats—after she brought an anti-police speaker to the school.
Cunat’s decision came as a shock to many parents, who praised her leadership over an eight-year tenure at the top-ranked CPS school.
“It is with a sad and happy heart I say good-bye,” Cunat wrote in an open letter to the students on June 6, her last day at the school. “I could not bear to do it in person as my heart was breaking with love, joy, and appreciation for each and every one of you as I looked at your faces today. It is time for me to go, but you are in good hands and the school is positive and strong.”
What led to Cunat’s abrupt decision isn’t just the story of what’s gone on at the elite CPS elementary school over the last year, but a symptom of the culture war raging throughout the city and the country around racism and policing—one whose battlefields are on social media and in the classroom as much as they are on the streets and in the City Council chambers.
The most proximal cause of Cunat’s resignation was a controversy that erupted at the end of May, after she’d invited police abolitionist and community organizer Ethan “Ethos” Viets-VanLear to speak to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for career day.
In a statement provided exclusively to the Reader, Cunat said that she “became aware early in the school year that a small but vocal group of parents were hoping for a new principal.” Due to this, she first began to look into other employment options at the end of 2017, she explained. “A few controversial incidents occurred over the course of the winter and spring, which, though resolved well, confirmed in my mind that it was time to move on at the end of the school year. When parent outcry over a career day speaker resulted in hateful social media and anonymous threats to me and my family, I decided to expedite my retirement from Chicago Public Schools.”
Cunat met Viets-VanLear through his mother, Jennifer Viets, a CPS employee who was coaching restorative justice practices at Wildwood throughout the school year. Multiple sources told the Reader that Cunat—who declined to comment any further for this story—wanted the students to hear how passion for social justice could become a career.
Viets-VanLear, 23, was appointed to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (which advises the governor and state legislators on criminal justice policy) at the age of 19. But he’s become a particularly prominent activist in the city since the death of his friend, 23-year-old Dominique “Damo” Franklin Jr., in 2014. Franklin was tased by CPD officers Juan Yanez and Michael Cosentino after he allegedly stole a bottle of vodka from an Old Town Walgreens. Witnesses reported seeing him slam head-first into a light pole after being tased; he fell into a coma and died two weeks later. The case was one of several highlighted in the DOJ report released last year, in which the federal agency was critical of CPD officers using tasers on fleeing suspects who’d committed “minor violations.” In 2017 the city settled a federal lawsuit brought by Franklin’s father for $200,000.
After Damo’s death, Viets-VanLear and others formed the group We Charge Genocide, and traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, in December 2014 to give a presentation about police violence in Chicago to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Since then, members of We Charge Genocide have become some of the most prominent police reform and abolition organizers in Chicago, and Viets-VanLear can frequently be seen at City Hall protests and Black Lives Matter rallies.
In an interview, Viets-VanLear told the Reader that in order to explain how he became an activist he always talks about his and his friends’ negative experiences with the police when they were growing up in Rogers Park. And to explain how he got to the UN, he always tells audiences about Damo’s death. He did so in his presentations at Wildwood too. But most of the talk was meant to inspire the students to think about how their passions could turn into careers, he said—even while they’re still in school.
“I talked to about five classrooms and the response was great,” he says. “The teachers all were happy, I had some great conversations with students. The principal was more than pleased and said she wanted to work with me again.” Cunat paid Viets-VanLear for the presentations out of her own pocket.
Wildwood is a school of about 500 kids nestled among stately homes and sprawling lawns in the leafy Forest Glen neighborhood. It’s 62 percent white and less than 5 percent black. Less than 15 percent of the students are low-income, far below the 77 percent district average. Because it’s a magnet program, students from other neighborhoods can access the school through a lottery.
Though exact data isn’t available, multiple sources confirmed that the school has quite a few students whose parents are city workers, and Viets-VanLear says some kids did tell him that their parents were police officers when he made critical remarks about cops. “I mentioned that this isn’t an attack on their parents—I’m talking about the structural system of incarceration and policing,” he says. “I think it’s important for young people to learn that not everybody has the same experience with police.” He adds that a few students even volunteered their own stories about unpleasant experiences with law enforcement.
But after Viets-VanLear’s May 25 talk, concerned parents began to flood Cunat with phone calls and e-mails throughout Memorial Day weekend. On May 30, Wildwood parents took their outrage to social media. On NextDoor, Facebook, and elsewhere, posts claimed Viets-VanLear had been invited by Cunat to teach kids to hate the police.
Anonymous comments on the Second City Cop blog have called for Cunat and Viets-VanLear to be tarred and feathered and ridden out on a rail. “Put him in jail then find a crime,” one person wrote on the blog.
Screenshots of Viets-VanLear’s Facebook profile were circulated and caused intense anger because it included the acronyms “CPDK/Fuck-12.” (CPDK stands for “Chicago Police Department Killer” and “Fuck 12” is widely interpreted as “fuck the police,” though as the Reader reported last year, different groups use the acronym in varying ways.)
Viets-VanLear, who’s since removed the “CPDK” from his profile, says he didn’t discuss these acronyms with the Wildwood kids but typically doesn’t shy away from talking about what they mean to him. “It’s about the institution of policing in this country,” he says. “It’s not asking for violence toward officers or their bodies or their families, but instead asking to reframe how we look at police—as an institution that’s hurting us, that we want to dismantle.”
But many Wildwood parents began calling for Cunat’s resignation or firing. Leaders at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union representing rank-and-file CPD officers, were also upset.
“Many people, not just police families, are justifiably outraged by the presentation at Wildwood School last week by an activist who reportedly called the police violent, racist and corrupt and whose Facebook page is despicable,” the union’s vice president, Martin Preib, declared on Facebook, adding that he was “working with officers in the district for an appropriate response. It’s not the first time CPS has let us and the public down, but we will respond accordingly.”
But other issues at the school upset parents too. In late May eighth-graders began the “Reparations Won” curriculum, which was mandated for CPS through the Jon Burge torture reparations package that was passed by City Council in 2015. According to several sources, some parents were concerned about anti-police bias in the curriculum—even though it was designed in partnership with the Chicago Police Department. Prior to the start of the curriculum Cunat held a meeting for concerned parents and even scheduled another session at the parents’ request—though no one showed for the second one.
Several sources confirmed that Cunat ultimately ended up teaching the Reparations Won materials to students because the class teacher was worried about blowback from police parents.
CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton says that, per district policy, teachers aren’t allowed to refuse to teach mandated curriculum. “Our classrooms are safe and respectful places for honest inquiry, and we have been working hand-in-hand with school communities as they implement thoughtful curriculum designed to foster meaningful and honest conversations about Chicago’s past,” she wrote in an e-mailed statement. “We encourage families to continue these conversations at home, and work with their schools to answer any questions or concerns they may have.”
In response to the outrage about Viets-VanLear’s talk, Cunat sent an apology to the school community on June 1. She said she was present when Viets-VanLear’s presentation “took a negative turn about policing, at which point I immediately intervened and redirected the conversation,” she wrote. “I care about your children and would never intentionally expose them to or endorse this type of negativity. . . . I was unaware of his social media pages that represented his anti-police views.”
Preib responded: “In my mind, apology accepted,” he said in a Facebook post written from the FOP account. He also wrote that the union was working with Cunat “to bring the police perspective into [the] curriculum.”
On June 6, which ended up being Cunat’s last day at the school, Preib and CPD detective Adrian Garcia (a parent of a Wildwood student) gave a presentation at the school. According to local school council member Sandra Laase, who was present at their talk and gave a report about it at the LSC meeting last week, “there was no bias or trying to influence anybody” during the presentation. She noted that the students were engaged and “showed a lot of empathy and a lot of concern about the police and their work. . . . Maybe the students are better than some of us in the community.”
But just as the Reparations Won material and Viets-VanLear’s talk drew criticism, so did this presentation, with other parents expressing frustration that police were allowed to speak directly with children at the school.
At the LSC meeting, most who spoke—including people who thought Cunat had made a big mistake bringing in Viets-VanLear—were sorry to see her leave. Some asked for an explanation about what had led to the decision.
“I want to figure out what happened to Mary Beth because in my option this school has lost a gem,” said retired CPS teacher and community resident Mary Cuny, who added that she was “flabbergasted” upon learning of the resignation.
The chair of the LSC said the council couldn’t comment on personnel matters, but parent Kristin Kenefik said at the meeting that “there was a group of parents who did not like her, and kept putting in complaint after complaint about her to the district. And then she started receiving personal threats—and I do have her permission to share this information. When the threats became personal she had no choice but to resign.”
Kenefik also said it was “naive” for parents to expect that their children would only hear positive information about the police. “Just turn on the news, there are reports of police brutality every day. If you think this was the first time your kids have heard about it you are living in a cave.”
At the meeting, Preib, police union president Kevin Graham, and several officers all expressed concerns about anti-police sentiments being conveyed to the students. Preib said he was “torn” about Cunat’s departure because after meeting her he could see her dedication to the school. “I’m very offended [Viets-VanLear] was here but I didn’t want to see her lose her job,” he said. “These are the kinds of people, whether you agree with them politically or not, that you want educating your children.”
Linda Ricciardi, a parent of two seventh-graders and an eighth-grader at the school (all of whom heard Viets-VanLear speak), said her husband is a police officer and that “you should not bash anyone in front of children.” She added that no child should have their parent be characterized as a “villain because of the job they do. . . . It’s morally wrong. And we have a right as parents to teach what we want to our children.”
After the meeting Ricciardi told the Reader that she had had no issues with Cunat before the career day incident, and that she was hoping that the principal wouldn’t resign. “Mary Beth is a great leader and could have gotten us through this and actually brought more connection to the neighborhood and maybe got us to a middle point of neutrality, of seeing both sides.” But, in Ricciardi’s opinion, Cunat “snapped” because of pressure from parents who’d been unhappy with her leadership all year.
Several people said there were some incidents of racist behavior by students at the school that caused friction between parents and Cunat. Some parents, who didn’t think there was a racial bias issue at Wildwood, felt Cunat was spending too much time trying to correct the problem through restorative justice work. Others, who thought racial bias was a serious issue that needed to be tackled, thought the principal wasn’t doing enough.
Viets-VanLear’s mother, Jennifer Viets, says she was brought in to lead restorative practice training at the school in response to these incidents and that Cunat was trying to make the students, staff, and the community more open to discussing these issues and white privilege.
“Mary Beth was so interested in this, so invested in this,” Viets says. Still, she adds, there were parents and teachers who weren’t interested in restorative practices and were against using school time to teach conflict resolution through peace circles and other other such methods. Viets has also been the target of vicious online commentary.
The remainder of the school year at Wildwood has been overseen by an interim principal. It will be up to the newly seated local school council to hire Cunat’s permanent replacement. But while Cunat, whom LSC member Laase described as “the most intelligent, the most charismatic, the most knowledgeable, the most visionary principal we ever had” is gone, the issues she was trying to grapple with aren’t going anywhere. The Reparations Won curriculum will continue to be mandated for eighth- and tenth-graders in CPS, and public debates about police accountability aren’t cooling down.
Viets-VanLear isn’t planning to stop his activism and advocacy work either. He says he’d even be happy to come back to Wildwood and hold an open forum with police officers. “I would love if one of the FOP members would want to do a public talk or debate at the school,” he said. Asked if he’d be open to such an event, the FOP’s Preib replied: “No.”