CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools’ independent watchdog opened more than 430 cases last year in response to allegations of employee sexual misconduct involving students, leading to criminal charges in four cases and 13 ongoing criminal investigations.
Nearly 50 employees involved in the inquiries were fired, resigned or retired, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the district’s Office of Inspector General for the 2019/2020 school year.
After a 2018 series in the Chicago Tribune highlighted widespread mishandling of reports of student abuse, the inspector general’s office took over investigations of sexual misconduct from the district’s law department. In a statement, Inspector General Will Fletcher suggested the change has resulted in more investigations and transparency. The district previously did not publicly report the findings of sexual misconduct investigations.
“The report discusses more than 100 cases completed by the Sexual Allegations Unit in its first full year of existence and attests to the importance of thorough and independent investigations of these very concerning allegations,” Fletcher said.
The IG’s office completed 267 investigations, including some involving allegations made during the previous year. About 40% of allegations were substantiated.
“CPS is committed to holding accountable all individuals who breach CPS policy and the public’s trust, and we take seriously our responsibility to address misconduct,” district spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement about the report. “The Office of Inspector General is an essential partner, and we appreciate their contributions to our district.”
Cases that resulted in criminal charges included a special education teacher who sexually assaulted an eighth grader, a basketball coach at a charter high school who was charged with five counts of criminal sexual assault and two counts of aggravated sexual assault, and a classroom assistant who inappropriately touched and exchanged sexually explicit text messages with a fourth grader.
In one case detailed in the report, a registered sex offender with a previous conviction for aggravated criminal sexual abuse posed as a volunteer with the JROTC program at several district schools. He made sexual comments to students, engaged in unwanted physical contact, and offered to perform gynecological exams on them. Staff members had referred students to him for nonexistent scholarship and job opportunities.
The man never went through the volunteer background check process because he was not formally identified as a volunteer. A student eventually discovered online that the man was a sex offender, according to the report.
At the inspector general’s recommendation, the district has since provided training on its volunteer policy to principals, assistant principals and network chiefs, with more training scheduled this year.
The office saw a marked uptick in reporting allegations compared with the previous fiscal year, when it first tackled these complaints. But reports dropped sharply after school buildings closed amid the pandemic in March.
The work of the office has spurred some systemic change. After the office flagged a number of complaints involving school security guards at district and charter schools, the district revisited how it vets and trains these employees. The district’s Office of Safety and Security and Office of Student Protections teamed up to create and roll out training specifically tailored for security officers.
According to the report, one officer exchanged nude photos with a student, another suggested the officer and a student should “hook up at hotels,” and another sent an inappropriate text message to an eighth grader.
The office investigated two cases involving Chicago police officers who were working part time as school security. The vast majority of the employees involved in the complaints were not employees of the Chicago Police Department.
Among the report’s other findings:
- As first publicly reported in early 2020, the inspector general found numerous irregularities on high-stakes tests for third through eighth graders, including unusually long durations and frequent pauses. After working with a test security consultant, the district will roll out changes this month, including setting time limits and documenting reasons for each pause.
- An investigation found former district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was convicted and jailed in a kickback scheme, steered business worth millions of dollars to companies run by two friends.
- The office also substantiated various cases of employees misusing paid time off and other benefits, lying about residing in Chicago as required by the district, and other policy violations.
Overall, the office received almost 1,950 complaints, and investigated about 40% of them amid staffing limitations. Sexual misconduct allegations made up more than one-fifth of the complaints.
Of the almost 50 employees involved in sexual misconduct investigations who were fired, resigned or retired, some remained in good standing with the state board of education even after the district had filed reports with the state, according to the inspector general’s office.
The report also found ongoing violations of a district policy that spells out how teachers should interact with students. Those were situations that involved no apparent sexual motives but still ran afoul of rules against using personal phones or social media to contact students or personal vehicles to give them rides — rules adopted in a bid to prevent sexual and other misconduct.
Fletcher said in his statement that the district has been responsive to his office’s recommendations.
“In addition to its work in providing students with appropriate supports, the Annual Report notes that the Board has implemented the OIG’s recommendations in the great majority of cases,” he said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.