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Charter School Sexual Misconduct Reporting Lags Behind District Numbers

From October to February, charter schools reported nine complaints of adult sexual abuse or misconduct against students, compared with 207 similar complaints in district-run schools.

File photo.
Jeff Mays / DNAinfo
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CHICAGO — Charter schools in Chicago report lower rates of alleged sexual misconduct by adults than do district schools. The gap leads child-protection advocates to fear that charters are underreporting allegations to the district’s inspector general, perhaps because of lax training or the lack of a requirement that charters share information.

Chicago school district leaders have tried to strengthen ways for students to report sexual misconduct in schools and the handling of those complaints, but the data obtained by Chalkbeat appear to show a weak link: The district failed to give the 121 charter schools under its jurisdiction clear directions on reporting abuse to the inspector general who investigates some misconduct claims.

From October to February, charter schools reported nine complaints of adult sexual abuse or misconduct against students, compared with 207 similar complaints in district-run schools, according to the office of the inspector general for the board of education. Charter schools educate about one in six Chicago Public School students, so the complaints from charters are disproportionately few.

“A likely possibility is that we are just not getting the cases, they’re not being reported to us,” said Nicholas Schuler, the inspector general for Chicago’s school board. “It’s a recipe for problems. Independent, transparent investigations are what is needed in this arena.”

A Chicago Tribune series last spring exposed widespread flaws in how the district has handled sexual abuse allegations since 2000. As a result, Chicago Public Schools overhauled its sexual misconduct reporting system, first by opening an office dedicated to handling student complaints of misconduct by other students and by adults.

Last week the board appointed a chief for that office, known as the Office of Student Protection and Title IX for the section of federal law that protects against discrimination and harassment, including sexual abuse.

In addition to that office, the school district gave Schuler as inspector general the power to review student allegations against teachers, coaches, and other adults and to suggest corrective action.

The district instructed its teachers and principals at district-run schools to first contact the city Department of Child and Family Services and then the inspector general’s office in case of any allegations of abuse by students against adults.

But the district did not ensure that employees of charter schools received the same instructions around abuse reporting. Charters, while publicly funded, are independently run.

As the Chicago Tribune’s investigation shows, an important part of tackling sexual misconduct by adults is training adults to report and having an independent body set up to review complaints. Those working with children are known as mandated reporters, meaning the law obligates them to report suspicions of child abuse to law enforcement.

But the school district didn’t give charter networks formal instructions on reporting to the Inspector General’s Office. Charters also don’t use Verify, the online tool that directs district-based complaints of sexual misconduct to Schuler’s office.

Instead, each charter network has its own internal system for reporting and investigating complaints of adult sexual abuse or harassment of students, and none of them include reporting to the Inspector General’s Office.

Noble, Acero and Chicago International Charter Schools, three of the city’s biggest networks, all require teachers to complete training for mandated reporters and on preventing sexual abuse. The networks began requiring the additional training this year to beef up protection of students.  

Noble, the city’s biggest network at 18 schools serving some 12,000 students, reports allegations of abuse to the CPS Office of Student Protections — but not to Schuler’s office.

Acero, where 7,000 students attend its 15 schools, has its own general counsel office that serves as a Title IX coordinator.

At Chicago International Charter Schools, which runs 14 schools through a handful of management organizations, school leaders report allegations to the network’s central office.

“Noble works closely with the CPS Office of Student Protections, and we join CPS in its commitment to improvement, swift action, and partnership regarding the fielding and processing of any complaints of misconduct,” Noble spokesman Cody Rogers said. “Student safety has always been and will always remain our most sacred priority.”

Schuler said there is confusion among charters over how to engage with his office. “Some charters don’t think the need to notify us, and some aren’t sure,” Schuler said. That uncertainty  isn’t in line with best practices on overseeing sexual abuse investigations.

“From the Catholic Church to any [cases in] big organizations, it’s pretty clear that these sexual allegations should not be left to the bodies themselves,” Schuler said.

Julia Strehlow, prevention program manager at the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, which has partnered with the district on retraining teachers and principals since last year, said that charters were offered the same training as the district but that it wasn’t mandatory.

Several months into the creation of the new office, Strehlow said, only a small percentage of charter school principals have taken the in-person training.

“Sexual abuse doesn’t know a demographic category,” she said. “Any idea that the school would [investigate] it independently… we know that is not effective and can harm students because they are being potentially interviewed multiple times.”

Moving forward, advocates say the district is still actively working on its Title IX reporting system, a responsibility that will fall to its new Title IX head Camie Pratt.

Chicago Public Schools said it is considering offering charter schools a clearer protocol for how to report abuse by adults. The district’s general counsel, Joseph Moriarty, said at a board meeting in January that the district is addressing concerns about charter compliance when it renews the schools’ charters — which usually happens only once every five years, depending on a network’s agreement with the district, The board this year just renewed several charter contracts, including that of Noble Schools.

To best protect students who may be at risk of abuse from adults, Schuler said it would be important to make sure reporting and investigative processes are the same for all students in the district, regardless of who runs their school.

“We want one remedy for this to go to all the district’s kids, whether they be in charter schools or district schools,” Schuler said.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.