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Sexual Assaults By City Lifeguards And Threatened Retaliation Against Victims Needs Broader Investigation, Park District Watchdog Says

The report centers on three male lifeguards accused of sexual assault.

A red flag flies over the 31st Street Beach in Chicago on Thursday, July 15, 2020. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Internal investigators at the Park District on Thursday detailed a series of sexual assault allegations against city lifeguards, including attacks on underage lifeguards and threats of retaliation against victims.

A report issued by Park District Inspector General Elaine Little said a broader investigation is needed — but her office needs more funding to widen its investigative powers.

The investigation centered on three former senior lifeguards in the aquatics program accused of sexually assaulting female lifeguards, some whom were minors at the time. The report alleged they threatened to retaliate against them if they disclosed the assaults.

“That evidence was extensive, detailed and corroborated; it established that the lifeguards
represented continuing threats to the safety and welfare of their victims, other Park District
employees and Park District patrons,” the report stated.

WBEZ first reported on the widespread abuse in April, including that the investigation began in March 2020 after parks Supt. Michael Kelly and Mayor Lori Lightfoot received separate complaints from two female lifeguards. Kelly did not alert the inspector general to the letter he received for more than a month, only sharing it after Lightfoot’s office forwarded him the separate complaint they received.

WBEZ later revealed a pattern of sexual abuse and a code of silence to protect abusers in the lifeguard program stretching back decades. 

The Park District is responsible for 26 indoor pools, 51 outdoor pools, 15 pools at schools and 23 beaches along Chicago’s extensive Lake Michigan lakefront. In June, the Park District announced its indoor pools would close just as outdoor pools were reopening, due to a shortage of lifeguards.

Little said in a letter accompanying the report that her office needs additional resources above its current $814,197 budget to expand its scope and support investigations such as the one looking into the lifeguard abuses, which has “not traditionally been under its investigative umbrella.”

“This newest subject matter has brought OIG to propose a reorganization of its investigative structure and a broadening of its investigative scope,” Little wrote. “While understanding the Park District’s acute financial constraints during and immediately post-pandemic, the OIG finds its proposal to be a necessary use of Park District resources. The OIG remains cautiously optimistic about receiving the additional resources as proposed.”

The report does not include the names of those accused of sexual misconduct or where the abuse occurred. Each of the three lifeguards accused of misconduct were placed on “emergency suspension” in summer 2020. All three either resigned or didn’t seek their seasonal position. The Park District agreed to the Office of Inspector General’s suggestion they be placed on a “do not hire” list.

Three Accused Of Misconduct

The investigation found it was “more likely than not” that a veteran male lifeguard forced a “rookie, underage female lifeguard to perform oral sex on him before he attempted to rape her.”

Although not disclosed in the report, WBEZ reported the man was in his 20s at the time and the female lifeguard was 16. Both worked at North Avenue Beach, according to the story.

The report says the victim of the assault told investigators the senior lifeguard offered her a ride home in 2018. But, before reaching her house, the veteran lifeguard “parked his automobile on the side of the street, refused to let his victim exit the vehicle, and directed her to give him oral sex while threatening to ‘make [her] life miserable’ if she refused.”

The victim initially refused but “acquiesced to his demands only because he was a more senior lifeguard at the beach who, she believed, could deliver on his threat.”

The veteran male lifeguard then “suddenly forced himself on top her, fondled her breasts and genitalia without her consent, and attempted to rape her.” The attacker only stopped after the victim repeatedly screamed, allowing her to leave the car.

The report says the story was independently corroborated by two other female lifeguards, who said the victim had previously told the story to them. 

The attacker continued to harass the victim after the assault. After learning she had told a fellow lifeguard, he sent her a threatening text message. 

The veteran lifeguard accused of the assault resigned amid the investigation.

Credit: Provided/Chicago Park District
Welles Park’s indoor pool.

A second lifeguard, who at the time was an instructor at Welles Park, according to WBEZ, allegedly harassed three female lifeguards. The supervisor was previously fired from a Chicago Public Schools pool in 2016 for making “inappropriate and uncomfortable advances toward two female high school students,” according to the report.

His harassment continued at the Park District, where he made unwanted comments about the appearance of three lifeguards he supervised and propositioned them for sex, including “once in front of another group of child patrons.”

The supervisor denied the allegations, telling inspector general investigators the victims “were upset with him — two years later — because he would not acquiesce to their various scheduling requests,” according to the report. The Office of Inspector General found his explanation “not credible” because of the extent to which the three victims corroborated the allegations against him.

He also resigned during the investigation.

A third male lifeguard, a veteran seasonal employee, “sexually assaulted and sexually abused female lifeguards while on duty,” according to the report. 

Between 2016 and 2018, the veteran lifeguard “committed criminal sexual abuse by molesting of a junior female lifeguard.”

The veteran lifeguard laid down next to one victim as she napped in the facilities women’s locker room, “and fondled her breasts and genitalia over her clothing,” according to the report. He continued the assault after she pleaded with him to stop.

The veteran lifeguard sexually abused another victim, this time an underage lifeguard, at a Park District pool, when he entered a storage room she was changing in “and forcefully sexually abused and assaulted her.”

WBEZ reported the assaults took place on the Northwest Side, at Portage Park and Jefferson Park pools.

When the two victims later worked together in 2020, they learned of and recounted the assaults to each other. The first victim had already spoken to Office of Inspector General investigators and suggested the second victim do the same, according to the report

The third man accused of assault also resigned amid the investigation.

A Park District spokeswoman referred Block Club to a letter Kelly wrote to patrons and staff dated to June 23.

In the letter, Kelly says the Park District has taken several steps in response to the investigation, including “the appointment of an internal monitor to oversee the District’s Beaches and Pools Unit, retaining outside counsel to support the OIG’s investigation, staffing changes, additional training in appropriate conduct, and training to prevent violence in the workplace and sexual harassment.”

“Again, we urge employees who have experienced or witnessed this type of behavior, to speak up without fear of retribution,” the letter states.

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