Chicago Public Schools officials have agreed to promptly transfer all investigations of sexual abuse cases involving students to the schools’ inspector general, Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark said Tuesday, in the latest move to counter public outcry over how the school system has handled students’ complaints.
When Inspector General Nick Schuler asked for that power last week, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she would wait for recommendations from a former assistant U.S. attorney hired to review all school system policies on sex abuse complaints before making such a commitment.
But in Clark’s first remarks since the Chicago Tribune began detailing CPS’ poor response to students’ reports of sex abuse, he said that Schuler’s office would take over all investigations of complaints going forward within 60 days, pending a vote at this month’s school board meeting.
The change would eliminate a conflict of interest created as CPS’ legal department investigated the cases of students who reported abuse, and then defended the school district against lawsuits filed by those students.
Jaime Guzman, the school board’s vice president, also vowed in English and in Spanish to “ensure that every component of these cases is handled properly, from the initial investigation to the employee discipline and crucially, to the student support. And the board will be closely monitoring this transition of responsibilities to ensure that it benefits students” via monthly status reports.
School board members would also grant Schuler more authority than he requested. He’ll now review all past cases of abuse reported against students going back to at least 2000 “to determine whether additional actions are required and other corrective actions should be taken,” said a “disappointed and outraged” Clark.
The inspector general has been promised the money and staff he’ll need to complete both jobs, a figure not yet determined.
“Cost is not an issue here when we’re talking about protecting students,” Jackson said.
CPS’ sudden acceleration in responding to its latest in a string of scandals since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011 shows its gravity compared to earlier outrages that jailed a CEO.
Last week, Emanuel offered a surprisingly bureaucratic and antiseptic response to the emotional scandal that has shaken parents.
The mayor had to be asked to apologize. The response he gave was devoid of the anger or emotion that his City Council allies expected to see. As several candidates vying to take his job and the Chicago Teachers Union urged a truly independent investigation, Emanuel also argued that the question of whether the investigation should be taken out of CPS hands was a question for another day.
On Tuesday, Emanuel tried again, saying, “Parents have to have the confidence that their kids are secure and safe and the people who would prey on their children need to be prosecuted for it.”
But he would not say what prompted CPS to change course.
Late last week, Jackson stood by CPS’ installment of former assistant U.S. attorney Maggie Hickey to review policies and make some recommendations in August, which could include passing some responsibility to Schuler.
“Ms. Hickey’s work is already underway and will include a comprehensive review of all abuse cases, including those that have been referred to the OIG … and as part of her charge, we have also asked for a recommendation on the appropriate manner to investigate these cases,” Jackson said Thursday in a statement.
She said on Tuesday, “I actually disagree that this is an about-face.”
Clark, who met with Schuler on Monday, said after he read the IG’s letter, he “made a determination that this was something that we could do now.”
The swift consensus between Schuler and Clark marks a thaw in their relationship marked in the past by public clashes over access to information and witnesses in IG investigations.
Schuler, whose investigations ousted former CEOs Forest Claypool, who lied in an ethics coverup, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, now in prison, said, “I’m pleased they decided to move in this direction, but it’s all going to come down to resources.”
CPS’ Office of the Inspector General, currently at 19, needs at least 10 more people just to take over future abuse investigations. The review of past cases — a number he still doesn’t know and CPS wouldn’t provide — would require more investigators. All will need experience dealing with special victims, Schuler said, adding, “If the resources aren’t dedicated, we’d be set up for failure.”
The mayor also cited a “human cost” for the student victims who didn’t get the help they needed.
“The way I look at it and the way Janice is looking at it, is a human cost,” Emanuel said, “and why we have to make sure for our children that they’re safe and secure and their parents have a peace of mind in that way.”
As for the inspector general, the mayor said “he’ll have the resources.”