CPS Marine Leadership Academy, 1920 N. Hamlin Ave., in Logan Square on Nov. 19, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

LOGAN SQUARE — For years, staff members at Marine Leadership Academy in Logan Square alerted school leadership and Chicago Public Schools officials to pervasive sex abuse happening on and off campus, but the issue was never taken as seriously as it should have been, they said.

Now, CPS has fired or is firing at least 10 employees at the school following an investigation by the district’s watchdog agency, which determined 12 employees and a volunteer at the school had inappropriate relationships with students — including sexual abuse — or helped cover up that misconduct in a years-long “stunning” and “colossal failure,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said Friday.

Two school employees who asked not to be named told Block Club sex abuse at the school, 1920 N. Hamlin Ave., is rampant and stretches back to at least 2016, when a video of a school employee and two students engaging in sexual behavior came to light. There were at least two other instances of school employees having sexually abusing students in 2018 and 2019, the employees said.

One incident was revealed after a student scrawled a message on a bathroom wall about a teacher still employed at the school who was sexually abusing them. In the other incident, another teacher abused “multiple” students, the employees said.

Over the years, there have been other allegations about teachers and staff members having inappropriate sexual contact with students, they said.

“Even though these are not my kids, they are my kids when I’m here. And no kid deserves to go through this. No kid,” one employee said. “We are here to protect them. They didn’t do that. They didn’t do their job.”

The employees said they reported all of the incidents to school administrators and some to CPS officials, and the accused teachers and staff members were fired, some much more promptly than others. But school and district leadership didn’t treat the issue as widespread, they said.

At Friday’s news conference, Martinez said the district learned of the allegations after getting an anonymous report in 2019. The investigation took so long because CPS’ office of the inspector general had a backlog of cases and staffing issues, he said.

“We did not realize the nature of a school culture that was problematic until Oct. 20 of this year,” a district official said at the news conference.

Three adults are still under investigation for inappropriate relationships with students, but there has been no evidence of sexual abuse in those instances and they’re no longer at the school, Martinez said.

Not all of the involved employees have been fired yet because the district had to wait for the investigation to be over, Martinez said. They will be fired once the report is issued Friday, he said.

“As soon as our district got evidence of any evidence that was gonna be substantiated … staff members were pulled immediately,” Martinez said. “The majority of them will be terminated after today.”

The staff members who spoke to Block Club said they are relieved the report is coming out and those involved have been removed, but they’re disappointed it’s taken this long for CPS to take action.

Both employees said they faced harassment from other school employees for speaking out about sexual abuse at the school.

“It’s like a mafia. CPS is like a mafia. I can’t put it in any other words. It’s like you’re with me or against me,” one employee said.

On top of the sex abuse, the school has lost two students to suicide in recent years, one of them seventh grader Emily Barrera, the employees said. The employees said the suicides are part of a larger issue at the school, which is that teachers, support staff and administrators have failed to keep students safe.

“I feel like we won half of our battle for the students, but it still remains that we need to fight for [the students who died by suicide], for their voices to be heard through us,” one of the employees said.

Outside the school Friday, parents and relatives of current students said they were dismayed by the allegations.

“I’m expecting my little sister to come here and be safe … and have people around her she can trust,” said one woman, whose sister is in eighth grade at the school “The fact that it’s happened to however many kids, it’s pretty sad.  … This is the one place you feel like kids are gonna be safe.”

One parent who has a junior at the school and two other children who graduated from there broke down in tears discussing the situation.

“It’s horrible, it’s real sad,” she said.

CPS Marine Leadership Academy, 1920 N. Hamlin Ave., in Logan Square on Nov. 19, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘Can’t Wait Until You Turn 18’

CPS’ watchdog agency will issue a report later Friday about the misconduct at Marine Leadership Academy, and 10 employees who are facing allegations of misconduct have been fired or are in the process of being dismissed, Martinez said at a morning news conference. Involved employees have been pulled from the school.

“We must examine what changes need to be made across the board so situations like this become less prevalent,” Martinez said.

Among those ousted was former principal Erin Galfer. In a statement, her attorney said Martinez wrongly accused Galfer of failing to report the abuse and misconduct.

“Notwithstanding Mr. Martinez’s attempt to create a false narrative, the tragic failure at Marine falls directly at the feet of CPS, who long knew about the misconduct and did not take timely steps to protect the students,” Galfer’s attorney Jonathan Karmel said. “Instead, Erin was wrongly terminated and looks forward to restoring her reputation, and more importantly, holding CPS responsible for its endemic failures to protect CPS students.”

Marine Leadership is a Level 1 CPS school that is affiliated with the Marine Corps JROTC program. The allegations involve a mix of staff — including teachers and administrators — and a volunteer, and they show a deeply problematic culture at the school, Martinez said.

One teacher had a “sexual relationship” with a student, Martinez said. Another teacher groomed a student and, once she turned 18 and graduated, immediately began a sexual relationship with her, he said. A volunteer groomed multiple students, he said.

Other adults sexually harassed, groomed and retaliated against students, Martinez said. Six of the involved adults failed to report or actively hid suspected violations, he said.

Some of the evidence in the cases included text messages where adults sent messages to students like, “Can’t wait until you turn 18,” Martinez said.

He would not say how many students had been victimized, only saying there were “not more than a dozen.”

Affected students were provided support, Martinez said.

“We fought hard for this day to come,” a teacher — who asked not to be named — said outside the school Friday. “We fought really hard. Because it felt like the upper people were covering up.”

Martinez — who started as CPS CEO in September — said CPS has been limited in what it could do until investigations were done because of Title IX limitations. Had they fired involved staff members before the investigation was complete, the employees could have sued, he said.

And the cases will be hard to prosecute due to the laws in Illinois, Martinez said. Loopholes allow adults to groom children so long as a “sexual relationship” does not begin until they’re legally adults — and those loopholes need to be closed, he said.

“As of today, it is not illegal to be grooming students,” Martinez said. “As of today, it is not illegal for staff to wait for students to turn 18 to have sexual relationships. … That’s what exists today. … These are loopholes that exist today.”

For example, a Marine Leadership Academy teacher groomed a girl while she was still a student at the school — but police could not take the case because the teacher didn’t begin a “sexual relationship” with the student until she was 18 and had graduated, Martinez said.

Martinez said he learned of the case in October and, as the father of two girls, is angry.

“We have a sworn duty as educators to protect children in our care …,” he said. “This flies in the face of these values and is extremely disappointing, to put it mildly.”

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