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.

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 investigation

Digging deeper into CPS’ background check policy

Thousands of employees, vendors and volunteers at Chicago schools must undergo criminal background checks before the 2018-19 school year begins.

In the wake of shocking revelations of widespread sexual abuse of students, Chicago Public Schools is clinging tightly to plans to run new criminal background checks this summer on thousands of adults who work in schools, including teachers, security guards and vendors.

Depending on the results, some familiar faces might be missing when classes resume — even among the army of volunteers who help keep some schools functioning.

CPS officials announced the $2 million background check effort earlier this June. Officials have also removed principals, turned over some investigation authority to the CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler, and hired former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey to conduct a top down review. Her report is due in August.

The background checks are one of several district measures announced this month amid fallout from a student abuse scandal spurred by a Chicago Tribune investigation.

Previously, the district reportedly failed to conduct proper background checks on adults who sexually abused or assaulted students inside school buildings. Some had prior criminal records, including  convictions and arrests for child sex crimes.

CPS Chief Safety and Security Officer Jadine Chou said, “we believe that we have one of the most rigorous background check processes for school districts in the country.” Yet there’s ample evidence some people might have passed checks when standards were less stringent, while others might have committed crimes after passing the checks or never been checked properly in the first place.

On Monday, CPS announced that a district audit of management practices at Simeon High School found systematic problems with how Simeon handles volunteer background checks. The audit, which focused particularly on the school’s past failures to put volunteer coaches through proper background checks, also revealed a new allegation of sexual abuse by a Simeon volunteer. The volunteer has been barred from the school pending an investigation, according to the district.

The new background checks are being conducted to catch those who have slipped through the cracks.

Here’s a closer look at what’s happening.

Who and what is CPS checking?

At least 45,000 employees, 5,000 vendors and 5,000 volunteers will have their fingerprints run through criminal databases held by Illinois State Police and the FBI. Authorities will search for their names among Illinois and federal sex offender registries, as well as the Illinois Crimes Against Youth Database. Names also will be checked against state child protection agency records for findings of child abuse, and the district will look through prior employment records, Chou explained.

“A combination of those sources help us to determine if any of these checks result in a finding, and if there is a finding on one of them then we take further investigation from there,” Chou said.  “When you do a background check, it’s not just a red light, green light – there’s a lot of nuance behind this information and we take the time and effort to look into what we’re seeing.”

The main thing CPS is looking for is criminal history, especially any of the “enumerated offenses” that automatically disqualify people from school district employment under the Illinois School Code.

The full list of disqualifying offenses includes first-degree murder, armed robbery, numerous classifications of sexual assault, abuse and exploitation, and crimes against children. As for drug possession, anyone caught in possession of more than 100 grams of marijuana (about 3.5 ounces) will be unable to work at schools; so is anyone convicted for growing marijuana or possessing more than 2.5 grams of the plant with intent to deliver. However, people who have completed special probation for first-time offenders would get the green light, according to the school code.

To determine whether someone is fit to be around children, Chou said CPS goes beyond the requirements of the school code and also looks for convictions that don’t rise to the level of a felony and aren’t included in the school code.

“We could look at things like battery and see if there are patterns,” she said. “Those are the type of things that require further investigation.”

An arrest in itself couldn’t be grounds for release. But that doesn’t mean CPS won’t look at arrests.

“If a person has a pattern of related arrests for something, let’s say repeated arrests for domestic battery, but every time the charges were dropped, through our investigation we are able to look into the circumstances behind those arrests so we can understand more around what really happened in those situations,” she said.

Chou said the district will flag anybody who it believes could pose a risk to children, and after further investigation will refer their case to the background check committee, which will recommend whether or not a person should be allowed to work or volunteer at schools.

Christine Geovanis, spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, said the union is watching the process closely to ensure that members flagged during in background checks receive due process and are only targeted with just cause for offenses that violate the school code or indicate they are a danger to a child.

She expressed particular concern for teachers with arrests tied to activism or protests against the board of education, and for collateral consequences to people of color, especially African-Americans, whose communities suffer disproportionate, sometimes discriminatory policing around drug law enforcement.

What about volunteers?

About 5,000 volunteers will need criminal background checks, according to CPS. That includes coaches, mentors, administrative and classroom assistants and others, as well as some parent volunteers. Among several types of volunteers, those classified as Level 1 have to get background checks.

CPS divides volunteers into two levels. Level I volunteers include the following: coaches; one-on-one tutors and mentors at schools; anybody who volunteers at their child’s school 10 or more hours a week or volunteers at least five hours at a school where they don’t have a kid; chaperones on overnight field trips; and volunteers in unsupervised settings.

Level II volunteers have less frequent contact with students and aren’t required to get background checks unless a principal requests it. They include those who volunteer fewer than 10 hours at their child’s school or fewer than five hours at a school where they don’t have a child, chaperones on field trips that don’t involve overnight stays, and adults who visit schools to speak to classes or to perform at assemblies.

Even before CPS tightened its background check policy, Level II volunteers had to get fingerprint-based criminal background checks and show a valid photo ID at the school they want to serve. Members of Local School Councils were supposed to undergo background checks.

Level II Volunteers didn’t have to get a background check, but still had to show photo ID. However, Chou explained, CPS principals still have the right to require that any volunteer regardless of tier undergo a background check.

“The volunteer criteria is the minimum, and principals have the discretion to go above and beyond that at their schools,” she said.

Jeanette Taylor, a CPS parent and education organizer on the South Side, said that CPS definitely should redo background checks before school starts but stressed that most of the perpetrators of sexual abuse and assault at schools identified in the Tribune investigation were school staff, vendors and coaches, not parent volunteers.

Taylor is also concerned that giving principals the discretion to require Level II volunteers to undergo background checks could be abused. She said that anybody who poses a risk to children shouldn’t be allowed to volunteer, but that the background checks bar many well-intentioned parents who want to invest time at their children’s schools, including undocumented parents and those whose past run-ins with the law have saddled them with collateral consequences long after they’ve served their sentences and paid their debt to society.

“It shouldn’t be because the principal decides they don’t like me,” she said.