GARY — A Gary father is expressing disbelief this week after his fifth-grader, who is autistic, was given a trophy dubbing him the "most annoying male" for the school year.
Rick Castejon said the award was given to his 11-year-old son at a fifth-grade awards luncheon for Bailly Preparatory Academy students last month by a special education teacher in front of students, parents and the school's principal Carlita Royal.
“We were blindsided. We just weren’t expecting it,” Castejon said. "As a principal or teacher, you should never let this happen to any student."
Gary Community School Corp. emergency manager Peter Morikis confirmed the incident in a statement Monday, saying he met immediately with family upon learning of the incident and that disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved.
"The Gary Community School Corporation does not condone this type of behavior and will continue to put the safety and well-being of our students first," Morikis said in a prepared statement to The Times. "We extend our deepest apologies to the impacted student, the family and anyone else who take offense to this unfortunate occurrence."
A part of a regular end-of-year awards ceremony, parents fell silent as the trophy was presented to the 11-year-old student at a May 23 school awards luncheon at the Merrillville Golden Corral, Castejon said.
It's inscribed “BAILEY PREPARATORY ACADEMY 2018-2019 MOST ANNOYING MALE.”
Not wanting to create a scene, the father said he tried to leave the award on a table at the Golden Corral at the end of the lunch, but was approached by his son's teacher reminding him not to forget the trophy. He said the teacher acted as if she were trying to play the incident off like a funny joke.
Morikis declined to comment Monday on the employment status of any school personnel involved in the matter, nor would he identify the teacher involved.
The Times will be filing a freedom of information act request for the teacher's employment status Tuesday.
"An apology was extended on behalf of the district to the family, and disciplinary action was taken against personnel involved," Morikis said in a statement. "We acknowledge the potential impact that an experience like this could have on a child's mental well-being, self-esteem and overall level of comfortability in a learning environment going forward."
Castejon said it wasn't until he went home after the awards ceremony and shared what happened with his wife later that night that the reality of what had happened set in with him.
He said throughout the school year, his son's teachers routinely called home with concerns about how to handle the fifth-grader's behavior, but it wasn’t until his son was presented the “Most Annoying Male” award that Castejon said he felt real concern. Now, Castejon is left wondering if these calls home were contributing factors in the trophy his son was presented last month.
Castejon described some of his son’s mannerisms as a student with autism. The 11-year-old is nonverbal, occasionally rocks back and forth and can become easily emotional, his father said.
“They called me all the time if he didn’t want to work, would cry or would have a breakdown,” Castejon said. “A special needs education teacher should know how to handle these things.”
After the May awards lunch, Castejon said his family contacted school administration. He said his family met with Morikis to discuss his concerns and was assured the district would take action.
He said the emergency manager discussed putting the teacher on a two-week suspension and would possibly fire the teacher.
At a May 27 fifth-grade graduation celebration at the school, Castejon said his son's teacher was noticeably absent.
Castejon said prior to the award incident, his family already had plans to move to Valparaiso and does not intend to send his son to Gary schools next year. The father said he was happy with Morikis' response to the incident but is speaking out now to ensure other students with special needs never experience the same kind of treatment.
“We just don’t want any other kids to go through this,” Castejon said. “Just because they have special needs doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings.”
CHESTERTON — Portage attorney Ken Elwood is among the people left scrambling Monday in the wake of an overnight fire that destroyed the popular lakeside wedding venue The Allure on the Lake.
Elwood said his 27-year-old daughter, Stephanie Tyrka, was scheduled to be married at the site Sept. 28 after having made the reservation a year ago.
"We had heard good things about it," Elwood said.
But the site was even more meaningful in that it was where Elwood and his wife, Edna, were married 20 years prior.
Elwood said his wife was making calls Monday morning to weigh their options, with the priority being finding another venue for the same date. But recognizing that September is a popular wedding month, he acknowledged the day of the nuptial may have to be changed.
Natalie Finnegan, a manager at The Allure sites in Chesterton and LaPorte, said she and others had been working hard Monday calling around to other venues to help couples make alternative plans for their weddings.
The priority, she said, has been on the most immediately scheduled weddings at the destroyed Chesterton location, including the ones planned for next weekend.
"We're going weekend by weekend," she said.
In the meantime, she and the others have been attempting to deal with grief the best they can, Finnegan said.
"We're all so very much in shock and numb," she said.
A few of the displaced brides and grooms had already showed up Monday at the Porter County Expo Center inquiring about replacement space for their big day, according to Director Lori Daly.
The facility at the northeast corner of Indiana 49 and Division Road has a pretty light August, she said, and some limited availability in October, November and December. The Great Room holds up to 400 guests and the Patio Room can accommodate 200 to 225 people.
No one had yet made a reservation as of Monday afternoon.
"I think everybody's still in shock," Daly said.
Troy Clark, who owns The Allure on the Lake, said from the fire scene Monday morning he intends to rebuild at the site.
Clark said he had spent a year renovating the existing banquet hall and adding a wedding chapel only to watch it all go up in smoke after a year in operation. A deck also was added overlooking the adjacent Lake Chubb.
"It's a devastating loss," he said.
Daly said she reached out to Clark offering help.
"He put his heart and soul in this facility," she said.
A state fire inspector was expected to arrive on site Monday to investigate the blaze, which was noticed by an on-duty police officer at 2:46 a.m., Chesterton Fire Chief John Jarka said from the scene Monday morning.
The blaze, which sent flames high into the night sky, is the largest fire in the town's recent history and attracted firefighters from several local communities, he said.
"All our neighbors were here to help," Jarka said.
The fire was finally put out about 5 a.m. Monday.
An event was hosted at the site Sunday, and the last employee left about 10:50 p.m., Jarka said. The building has kitchen facilities.
The Allure on the Lake is attached to the Waterbird Lakeside Inn, but a fire corridor kept the flames from reaching the hotel, Jarka said. He said the inn was evacuated, and 40 overnight guests were accommodated at another nearby hotel before being cleared Monday morning to return.
No one was injured in the blaze and the cause has not yet been determined, Jarka said.
LAKE STATION — A Lowell man was arrested at a bar on Decatur Street in Lake Station after fighting with a state trooper during a traffic stop, according to an Indiana State Police news release.
Edward E. Wilber, 49, was stopped about 1:50 a.m. Saturday by Indiana State Trooper Eric Mardry, who had been off duty at the time in a semi-marked police car, the release stated.
Madry said he saw a black Ford pickup drive through a stop sign at Locust Avenue and Randolph Street in Gary.
Madry pulled the vehicle driven by Wilber over and noticed he refused to show his hands or obey various commands, the release stated.
After being asked to exit the truck, Madry said Wilber began yelling, "Hoorah," multiple times as he got out of the vehicle. He then proceeded "aggressively" toward the trooper.
Wilber punched Madry in the shoulder, according to the release. The trooper said he put the man into a partial arm lock, but Wilber broke away, got into his truck and fled.
Madry followed Wilber about six miles until he ran from the pickup into a wooded area near the 2700 block of Clay Street in Lake Station, the release stated.
Wilber was later found by Lake Station police officers in the Decatur Street bar, according to the release. He was taken to Lake County Jail on a $25,000 bail, where he fell to the ground and began yelling in the fetal position.
Wilber has been charged with three felonies and five misdemeanors, including battery on law enforcement and OWI. He bonded out of jail Monday on a nearly $2,500 bond, said Pam Jones, a spokeperson with the Lake County Sheriff's Office.
ST. JOHN — In her four years of high school, Lake Central graduate Olivia Longo sat at a different lunch table every day.
At one of the state's largest high schools — which graduates nearly 800 students this year — Longo said her classmates were sometimes surprised, but always welcoming of the new face. It was this same acceptance the Lake Central graduate encouraged her classmates to take with them through life in her introductory remarks Sunday afternoon.
"That is what I want for all of you as you move from our house, our Lake Central house, into the world — that you include everyone at your table," Longo said. "We all have something to contribute."
Longo, who has Down syndrome, was one of several student speakers to address Lake Central's graduating Class of 2019 during its commencement ceremony Sunday. Her pitch to fellow students to make the world a more inclusive place received a standing ovation as the 791 graduates prepared to walk the stage in the high school's gymnasium.
"Our core values — pride, respect, ambition, commitment, tolerance, integrity, service, excellence and responsibility — these are everything that we want you to embody as a Lake Central graduate," said Lake Central Principal Sean Begley as he introduced Longo. "There's no better way to complete this message than by hearing from a student who embodies these values and has a beautiful vision for the future."
In many ways, the class of 2019 has embodied the future of the Lake Central School Corp. Being the 111th graduating class in St. John and the 53rd from the Lake Central district, the 2019 graduates were the first to spend all four years in the district's expanded high school.
Whether it was describing the senior class' efforts to raise money for cancer research or support literacy through a summer mobile library initiative, this same message of inclusivity and working in service of others was echoed throughout the Sunday ceremony.
Lake Central Superintendent Larry Veracco — drawing inspiration from U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven's popular 2014 "Make Your Bed" commencement speech delivered at the University of Texas at Austin — pointed to the Class of 2019's collective potential to make a difference.
"He also shared with those Texas graduates what he called the multiplier effect," Veracco said. "He said if every one of you changed the lives of 10 people and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people, just 10, then in five generations — 125 years — your class will have changed the lives of 800 million people."
Looking ahead, student speaker Thomas Pavell shared what he saw in the senior class sitting before him — future engineers, doctors, nurses, police officers, computer scientists, mechanics, graphic designers and more.
"Once we graduate from Lake Central, the ocean that is our world is going to explode with possibility," Pavell said. "The flood gates are open to everyone in this world. Go ahead and dive in."
HAMMOND — The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District police are asking for help identifying a suspect who allegedly stole tires from two vehicles parked at the South Shore Line station on Hohman Avenue in Hammond Wednesday morning, according to a NICTD news release.
The male suspect was seen driving a burgundy Buick, with a small, white dog in the vehicle's window about 10:30 a.m., the release states. He was wearing a black, long-sleeve hoodie, gray sweatpants and black gym shoes with white soles.
Anyone with information is asked to call NICTD police at 219-398-6000. All calls will be kept confidential, according to the release.