MORRIS – For months Andrew Koscik insisted nothing inappropriate occurred when his coach was texting him in the middle of the night.
“It was an awkward subject,” Koscik said. “You hear about it in the news and how it gets blown up and it’s embarrassing to say at first.
“When it’s a teacher/coach and student, you don’t want to because there’s that trust. He said not to [tell anyone], his trust in me would be broken, there might be repercussions. It’s a very difficult thing to bring up and come out with, but it’s definitely the right thing to do.”
The Morris Daily Herald does not usually identify victims of abuse, but Koscik has agreed to let his name be used in hopes that telling his story will encourage other children and families to come forward if they are in an inappropriate situation with an adult in their life.
“Look at the people you might end up saving down the road,” he said. “You’re not just coming forward because of what happened to you. It’s something that needs to be done.”
Steffen Balegno, former Morris Community High School industrial arts teacher and assistant baseball coach, was found guilty in November of grooming and indecent solicitation of a child. He is up for sentencing next month, where he could get probation or up to three years in prison for the grooming charge and five years for the solicitation.
More than 5,000 text exchanges occurred and included Balegno offering paintball equipment and money if Koscik would allow him to perform sexual acts on him, according to testimony given in court. The student’s texts to the teacher varied from sometimes initiating the inappropriateness to at one point saying “stop.”
Balegno was arrested in January 2012. Koscik, now 19 and in college, was 16 when the incidents occurred in 2010.
Balegno testified in court that he was trying to teach the boy a lesson in how to defend himself by pushing him with the texts.
The staff of Balengo’s attorney, Raymond Wigell, responded to a request for a comment from him or Balengo by saying that Wigell’s schedule did not allow time to respond.
After denying it to his mother, police, Morris High School officials and even the Department of Children and Family Services, Koscik finally admitted the truth.
When he found out investigators were going to be able to recover some of the texts he knew he could no longer deny it. And then his mother said something that stuck.
“[She said] what if it happens to the kids across the street or to one of my cousins who are going to school there? It was the right thing to do,” Koscik said. “It happened to me, it happened to people before me and if these people had come forward maybe it wouldn’t have happened to me.”
Koscik’s mother, Michelle Peterson, advises families to follow their gut. Peterson overheard a telephone conversation between her son and his coach that just didn’t sound right. From there she looked through the phone, contacted the school and eventually law enforcement.
Investigating text messages that need to be recovered after deletion is not easy, and finding an agency with the capability of doing so proved to be difficult. But Peterson kept pushing, even to the prosecution stage under previous Grundy County State’s Attorney administration.
“Andrew was so angry with me, he just wanted it to stop and go away,” she said.
“So many people told me anyone else would have given up. You can’t give up, these are our kids. I can’t give up on my son. We have to make sure our kids are protected.”
She said the Morris police detectives, Morris high school administration and staff and State’s Attorney Jason Helland’s office fought hard for her family.
“They care about their job and the people they’re dealing with and that you don’t feel like just a number,” Peterson said.
One of the easiest ways to protect your children is to monitor use of electronic devices, whether it is texts on a cellphone or emails on a computer.
“Parents need to be aware you are inviting potential sexual predators into your home when you allow the use of electronic devices unmonitored,” Helland said.
Parents should be watching who their child is communicating with, what time of day and the content of the communication, he said. If something suspicious is found, it should be taken straight to law enforcement.
From there an investigation will begin, but this will take time, Helland said. It is not as simple as handing over the phone and making an arrest. Investigators have to prove those messages were sent by the actual person they appear to be from.
“It takes a very thorough investigation,” he said.
There are signs to look for if you fear your child might be involved with inappropriate communications, Morris Police Chief Brent Dite said. Some examples are if he or she is suddenly staying up later than normal, waking up late for school or not getting to school; or sudden changes in routines, friends or behavior.
“Not wanting to give passwords for their social media sites could also be a cause for concern,” Dite said. “What are they trying to hide?”
If something suspicious is found, saving the messages can be an important step for investigators. Retrieving deleted texts can sometimes be difficult, Dite said, especially with evolving technology. If there is a school component, reporting incidents to the school district also is important so police and school officials can work together.