Two principals out in wake of sex abuse scandal. Two retirees to step up as interims

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
The school board passed Chicago Public Schools' 2018-19 budget at CPS headquarters on July 25, 2018.

Chicago Public Schools has removed one principal and reassigned another in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that has caused reverberations throughout the district.

After an internal audit of management practices at the school, Simeon Career Academy Principal Dr. Sheldon House was “removed” this afternoon, according to a release from the district. “In particular, the review focused on the school’s response to past events in which volunteers were able to coach athletics without the proper background checks,” said the statement from CPS CEO Janice Jackson. “Unfortunately, the audit found systemic issues in Simeon’s handling of volunteer background checks.”

Simeon, in Chatham, is an athletic powerhouse that has won multiple state titles. Alums of the 1,300-student school include Chicago-raised basketball stars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker and State Rep. Mary E. Flowers, who graduated from Simeon in 1970. Though the Chicago Democrat graduated decades ago, she said she’s just as outraged as if it had happened while she was in school.

“I am devastated by it, but I’m not surprised about it,” said Flowers, who called for state oversight of the school district. “It’s not enough that they let them (principals) go.”

The district also announced it “reassigned” Sarah Goode STEM Academy principal Armando Rodriguez on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation. The decision followed the removal in June of a teacher after a student alleged possible sexual abuse. “CPS and DCFS are currently investigating to determine if abuse occurred, and the district will provide an update to the school community after the investigation is complete,” said the statement.

Located in Ashburn on the city’s Southwest Side, Sarah Goode STEM Academy is one of a handful of Chicago schools where students can earn dual credits in high school and college. The 860-student school is sponsored by IBM.

Both schools are level one schools, the next-to-highest rating in the district. 

CPS has selected David Gilligan, the retired former principal of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, to serve as Goode’s top administrator until the Local School Council selects a new principal.

At Simeon, Patricia Woodson has been brought out of retirement to serve as principal until a new administrator is named. Woodson previously served as the administrator in charge of Harlan, Marshall, and South Shore International schools.

The district’s widespread failing to have a system in place to protect student victims was first reported in early June in the Chicago Tribune. In the weeks since, CEO Jackson has announced several policy changes, including a widespread campaign to redo background checks of teachers, vendors, coaches, and volunteers. The district has also turned over its incident investigations to the office of Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

Reached Monday night, Flowers repeated calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Jackson, and board of education members to step down. She said that state lawmakers were planning another hearing in July.

“I think the parents voices need to be heard, and I’m looking forward to having some hearings in communities and at the schools…We expect (CPS CEO) Jackson to be there.”

Keeping students safe

Questions about sexual abuse cases squeeze top of CPS org chart

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
On June 27, the Chicago Board of Education held its first public meeting since an investigation exposed the school district's mishandling of sexual abuse cases over a decade.

Teachers and coaches have been barred from buildings pending investigations into accusations that they sexually abused students. Principals at schools where students were allegedly abused have been “reassigned” or axed. But no one atop the chain of command at Chicago Public Schools has faced removal for the school district’s failure to protect students, despite calls from parent groups and lawmakers for top officials to step down.

Meanwhile, the questioning is getting more pointed, with an influential parent group challenging Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark at a public meeting, while state lawmakers and Chicago aldermen push for Clark and CPS CEO Janice Jackson to attend hearings intended to probe the district’s handling of cases of reported misconduct. The scandal also puts Mayor Rahm Emanuel under the microscope. Emanuel holds power over the school district, and appoints board members and school CEOs alike, which raises questions about his role in decision-making.

Emanuel’s spokeswoman Lauren Markowitz wouldn’t say whether he would answer lawmakers’ questions at any of the proposed or planned hearings, but said in a statement, “The mayor supports CPS’ work as they spare no expense to make sure our kids are safe.”

“Their work continues, because all of us are committed to ensuring what happened in the past does not happen again in the future,” she said.

On Wednesday, at the first board meeting since the sexual abuse scandal went nuclear, a member of the vocal parent group Raise Your Hand stepped to the mic to ask Jackson, Clark, and other officials—on the record—about their role in CPS’ mishandling of sexual abuse cases.

Raise Your Hand spokeswoman Jennie Biggs, whose children are enrolled at two CPS high schools and one elementary school, began her remarks by pointing out a little-known aspect of the district org chart: that CPS lawyers who interrogated student sexual abuse victims reported to the district’s general counsel, who reports directly to the board president. That means, she continued, “that President Clark and his predecessors were briefed on rampant reports of sexual abuse in our schools over time.”

Biggs said that the public doesn’t know how much Clark, who was named board president in 2015, or his predecessor David Vitale, who served from 2011 to 2015, knew about systematic problems at CPS related to sexual abuse, or how much they shared with their colleagues on the board. “But we do know that they knew and did nothing.”

“The CPS legal department handled over 400 cases of sexual abuse or assault incidents in the school setting over the last seven years,” she said. “We want to know: How is it possible that the board never recognized that more needed to be done to ensure proper training at schools, and why did you not employ network staff to ensure compliance in this area?”

“Sure, some individual teachers, principals and staff are also complicit,” she told the board. “But you hold the keys to district policymaking, and you did not act. You did not do your jobs.”

No one on the board responded.

Angling for more hearings

In a statement emailed to Chalkbeat and other local news outlets after the meeting, CPS spokesman Michael Passman elaborated on Clark’s role, saying Clark is briefed “on significant investigations and legal actions, and whenever he has been presented with a matter involving sexual abuse he has pushed CPS staff to help ensure district practices are as strong as possible.” The email listed policies implemented since 2014 to keep students safe, including strengthening background checks, establishing a discipline committee to review employee misconduct investigations, holding trainings to help employees identify signs of abuse, and enacting policies offering guidance to principals on reporting requirements and ensuring appropriate student/staff interactions.

However, Passman wouldn’t say how many sexual abuse incidents Clark was notified of, when he was notified, or name specific measures or policies he “pushed.”

And Clark hung up when Chalkbeat Chicago called seeking more details.

"We want to know: How is it possible that the board never recognized that more needed to be done to ensure proper training at schools?"Jennie Biggs

Lawmakers also want to reach the board president to find out what Clark knew—and when. Some were left livid last week when Jackson and Clark skipped a state hearing about the abuse scandal. CPS sent representatives from various departments, but legislators were not satisfied.

“The question is: Was the law department conducting these investigations and not reporting back to Frank Clark—or if they were reporting, why didn’t the board and Frank Clark do something sooner? It’s one or the other,” said state Rep. Fred Crespo, chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.

Crespo, a Democrat whose district includes Chicago’s northwest suburbs, said state lawmakers are planning a second hearing, and that he will ask Clark, Jackson, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appear.

Chicago aldermen also have seized the moment, introducing a City Council resolution to establish hearings about sexual abuse with the council’s Committee on Education and Child Development and Clark, Jackson, and top city officials.

But one of the aldermen backing the measure, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd ward, which includes parts of Lincoln Park and Logan Square), said he has struggled to garner support from the committee chair, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st, which includes parts of Auburn Gresham and Chatham)—thus leaving the resolution in limbo. Brookins wasn’t reachable for comment Thursday.

To bypass the committee, Waguespack said aldermen could lean on “Rule 41,” a parliamentary procedure that would allow council members to wait 60 days before bringing the resolution to a vote at a City Council meeting. But since there’s no council meeting in August, they would have to wait until September, at least. Even then there’s no guarantee they could get a hearing, because the council can vote down the maneuver, especially if Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn’t back it, which he hasn’t publicly. 

“It’s imperative when you look at the chain of command to ask: Who were the people involved who knew about it, and what responsibility is there for those people to either resign or be fired,” Waguespack said. “To me that’s the ultimate question.”

A “top-to-bottom” review

In a May board meeting, just days before the Chicago Tribune first reported the widespread mishandling of sexual misconduct cases involving students and adults, the board tapped Maggie Hickey, a former federal prosecutor and state Executive Inspector General, to spearhead an independent review of CPS’ handling sexual violence at schools.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Hickey was tight-lipped about the scope of her review.

“I am looking at all the policies and procedures in a top-to-bottom review,” she said.

Asked more specifically if her review would address the role played by Clark and the board, she reiterated: “I am doing a top-to-bottom review.”

Also potentially examining the role district leaders played in handling abuse cases: CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler. The school board this week granted him the power to review CPS’ handling of sexual assault cases going back to 2000.

On Thursday, Schuler said it was too early to say whether his review would explore the actions of Clark and other top officials, but that “the answer to that is—potentially.”  

“We follow the evidence where it leads,” he said. “If it turns out people at a high level or low level responded inappropriately, we’ll be looking into that.”

Crespo questioned whether Schuler will be empowered to review the district’s response. “If it were up to me, I would give the inspector general power to conduct investigations and have him report to the Illinois State Board of Education, and then ISBE would work to see how the review went and help implement recommendations,” he said. “I just don’t see this current model working very well for the students at CPS.”

In early June, Emanuel apologized to student victims and pledged to fix systemic breakdowns that put them at risk. But his challengers in the 2019 mayoral election blasted him for not acting sooner once the Tribune began filing Freedom of Information requests in January seeking details about sexual violence at schools.

In her statement, mayoral spokeswoman Markowitz said that what happened to the student victims is “unacceptable,” commended them for having the courage to come forward, and emphasized that, while CPS has taken action to better protect students, “clearly more is required to make sure this never happens again.”

That’s why [CPS CEO Jackson] and her team have implemented new policies, new trainings, renewed background checks, and a top-to-bottom review of the district to better safeguard and advocate for students,” Markowitz said. 

Yet, critics of CPS and the mayor’s office argue that CPS’ latest controversy is another example of city officials failing to proactively tackle or disclose problems, and then scrambling to put out fires only after they’ve been exposed by journalists and government watchdogs.

Crespo emphasized that the sexual abuse scandal comes on the heels of revelations about delays and denials of services for students with special needs and exposés about filthy conditions at scores of CPS schools. “Where is the board?,” he asked. “How can they let all this happen?” And, Crespo added: “How involved is Mayor Rahm Emanuel in these decision-making processes?”  

“It all starts and ends with him,” Crespo said. 

Sexual misconduct

Here’s what you need to know about CPS’ new $3 million ‘Student Protections’ office

Chicago Public Schools announced Wednesday it will create a $3 million, 20-person department tasked with protecting students from sexual violence and discrimination—from both adults at schools and their classmates. The new Office of Student Protections and Title IX will be led by a Title IX officer—you can find the job description here—who will report directly to CPS CEO Janice Jackson.

The announcement comes amid fallout from a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed major lapses in how schools handle student complaints of sexual misconduct by teachers, coaches, and other adults. The district has responded by transferring some investigative authority to the Office of the Inspector General, strengthening its background check policy, and removing two principals.  

The new office, which will also handle complaints of misconduct by students—represents a “long-term commitment to ensure learning environments are free from sexual violence, harassment and discrimination,” the release said. The office will help coordinate CPS’ responses to allegations of abuse.

Here’s more information about what the office would do:

  • Refer allegations of sexual abuse to the Office of the Inspector General for investigation.
  • Connect students with advocates and other resources.  
  • Oversee investigations related to student-on-student abuse, bullying and harassment, and ensure student victims are connected to advocate services, counseling, and other supports.
  • Ensure CPS complies with federal Title IX laws meant to safeguard students from discrimination.
  • Provide training to CPS employees to help them prevent, identify, report and respond to sexual misconduct, and make sure that CPS’ policies give explicit guidance about what employees must to do.
  • Compile and share information with the public as appropriate.

The office will be led by a chief who reports directly to Jackson and manages the following three teams:

  1. A training and compliance team focused on developing and coordinating training for staff, students and parents about all forms of sex and gender based discrimination and sexual violence and reporting data about sex discrimination and Title IX compliance.
  2. A Title IX coordination team responsible for coordinating the district’s response to incidents of sexual harassment and abuse against students.
  3. A Title IX investigations team that will spearhead the most serious cases of student-on-student sexual abuse and violence.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey expressed concerns today about ambiguity, saying that some teacher-student situations, such as 1:1 tutoring, could be flagged as inappropriate. He also said CPS needs to do a better job of communicating its sexual misconduct action plan to the union.