Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation

Nov 6, 2019

Laurie Borowicz began her position as Kishwaukee College President in 2015, becoming the first woman in its history to lead the school. Police records show that in June of 2019 President Borowicz received two anonymous letters. One was critical of her job performance and strongly urged her to leave the college. The other was an apology for sending the first letter. Each note was typed and stuffed into white envelopes with a handwritten address and a colorful flower stamp. 

 

According to police reports, this isn't the first time she and other Kishwaukee officials, such as Trustee Bob Hammon, have received anonymous letters. But the president responded uniquely this time.

 

Borowicz approached the school’s security department, which is a contracted extension of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department. Police reports say the president found the letters alarming and disturbing and police originally classified them as harrassment, but found no "obvious threat" or criminal activity.

 

One report says that once Borowicz got the apology letter, she told the responding officer to "disregard."

 

Borowicz declined multiple requests for comment on the letters or on what happened next. 

 

Some faculty members are upset with the investigation that followed. Matt Read is a math teacher at Kish. He’s a member and past president of the Kishwaukee College Education Association, or faculty union. 

 

Read said he doesn’t know who sent the letters. But, he said, the letter of critique speaks for many at the school.

 

“There's not a single person that I know at Kishwaukee College," he said, "that would have disagreed with the content of that letter.”

 

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said Borowicz then suspected a current employee, so officers looked into the claim as a "follow-up," and as a courtesy to the college, since they're its security department.

 

Sarah Marsden was accused of sending anonymous letters to Kishwaukee Community College's president, Laurie Borowicz. She says she's innocent and says the accusation was without merit.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

The suspect? Her name is Sarah Marsden and she’s a counselor at Kish. Sheriff Scott said she was accused because officers were told by the college's administration that her handwriting looked like it could match what was on the envelope.

 

She said she’s innocent.

 

“I had nothing to do with them,” she said.

 

Marsden was questioned on campus on June 25. She says she was told by officers her handwriting looked similar to what was written on the envelopes. Case reports call the question period part of an “investigation into the nature of the letters,” but whether to call it an "interrogation" depends on who you ask. Matt Read said no union representative was present. Marsden was given a lie detector, or stress-analysis, test which police said pointed to deception in her answering of critical questions. Experts say tests like these are widely inadmissible as evidence because they only show when vital signs change. Nevertheless, Marsden said she was put on paid administrative leave by the end of the day.

 

To be clear, she wasn’t charged with anything. Sheriff Scott said, at that point, his department’s involvement in the matter was essentially done. 

 

“We did do some follow-up work after that," Scott said, "but it was nothing extensive.”

 

Sheriff Scott said the "follow-up" meant a phone call weeks later between Marsden and the detective handling the case. The detective passed on a message from the college saying its administration just wanted to know the truth.

 

Marsden’s leave lasted seven weeks. She hired a lawyer during this time.

 

“The first attorney was like an emergency, 'I'm going to be arrested' attorney," she said. "And so I thought I needed, like, a criminal defense attorney.”

 

Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the college's administration exchanged messages during this time with a Chicago-based law firm, one they've worked with in the past, that specializes in higher-ed litigation. Other emails suggest an internal investigation was ongoing while Marsden was on leave. It’s unclear what happened during these weeks, but Sheriff Scott met with school officials at a coffee shop to talk -- in part -- about the closed case and public information policies. 

 

Scott said revisiting a case after it’s closed isn’t unusual.

 

“It's normal," he said. "Just because we say it's closed doesn't mean we never look at [it], we have cases that are -- it's closed because there was no arrest. But it doesn't mean... if we get new information or want to do go back and look at a case, we do that all the time. So it's not unusual at all.”

 

By August 6, Marsden got a message that stated the accusations against her couldn't be substantiated. A week later, she was back to work. 

 

“It is just a really challenging time for us right now,” said Marsden about what working at Kish feels like for her and others at the school.

 

Marsden has since gotten a new attorney, based out of Naperville.

 

Public records of Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests show multiple Kishwaukee College personnel asked for detailed documents from a 2017 employee satisfaction survey. Matt Read, a faculty member who joined the joint request, said this FOIA was ultimately denied. He said employee comments from previous surveys from 2011 and 2013 were released in the past.

According to a written statement, Marsden thinks she was accused, in part, because of Freedom of Information Act requests she and other Kish faculty, including Matt Read, made to the college in 2018. They asked for employee satisfaction survey results that used to be accessible in previous years. They were ultimately denied.

Marsden's written statement includes claims about the "lack of independence" of the Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Scott said he has no comment on these claims.

Marsden and other faculty members said there needs to be a more effective way to communicate criticism within Kishwaukee College.

 

“I think the more we try to keep things secret and keep them in the dark," she said, "we're just not problem solving or [we] are not helping each other out the way we could.”

 

A representative for the college also declined to comment on what communication systems are in place for faculty and administration to converse.

 

Tim Banasiak is a negotiator for the faculty union, and automotive instructor. 

 

“The way it was told to us through the channels," Banasiak said, "was that [the investigation into who sent the letters] didn't concern us. It was [a] 'nothing to be worried about' kind-of-thing, and 'leave it alone.'” 

 

Banasiak said there’s a lack of transparency when it comes to the college’s internal investigations because there’s no independent oversight. He said some at Kish are hesitant to speak out about the college because they are concerned about retaliation as they saw it play out with Sarah Marsden.

 

“We don't know why. How was she singled out?" he questioned. "How many different offices did they go through? Why her? Why was she the one?”

 

Both the Sheriff’s department and faculty union said the author of the letters is still unknown. In the meantime, some faculty members said the reasons behind this summer’s anonymous critique remain.