Chicago Public Schools employees will undergo additional background checks, adults will be restricted from having any access to students if sexual abuse is alleged and employees will undergo retraining on reporting abuse and inappropriate boundaries between staff and students.
Those were among some of the major changes CPS officials told state legislators they’ll undergo in light of an alarming Chicago Tribune investigation that uncovered a decade of mishandling cases of sexual abuse.
But is it enough?
Morgan Aranda and Tamara Reed — two CPS students who endured sexual abuse by teachers at their schools — gave powerful and emotional testimonies while offering up pleas to protect students. But both said the remedies CPS is offering won’t be enough.
“I don’t have any faith in CPS,” Aranda, 22, said after leaving the hearing. “It’s been decades and decades and decades of cover-ups, and it just boils down to what? Being scared of losing funding? Being scared of not being elected again?”
Reed, 17, said she believed legislators have the power to create change within the school district: “But CPS, they’re not going to implement as much as they need. They need to reiterate those rules to the teachers. But as we’ve stated, it’s a cover-up.”
During a lengthy joint Illinois Senate and House Education Committee hearing in Chicago, Aranda and Reed outlined the abuse they endured, the botched interrogation processes they went through and the anguish they’ve suffered since.
Aranda at age 14 reported that a teacher at Walter Payton College Prep kissed her and touched her inappropriately. The teacher was dismissed but was never charged criminally and is still receiving a pension. Aranda on Wednesday said the school never called police about her allegation.
Aranda described the repetitive interviews she endured with school staff, including questions about what she was wearing when the abuse occurred. She said it made her doubt her actions, even as a teen victim.
“I was embarrassed to tears to tell him I had been wearing a skirt and tights. I felt guilty. I wondered if [the teacher] would have groped me if I had been wearing jeans,” Aranda said. “If he would have kissed me had I been standing a few inches further away.”
“I was shuttered into the dark. I felt like I was the one undergoing an investigation,” Aranda said in tears as Reed offered her comfort.
Aranda, who is now a student at Ohio State University, said she came back home because she cares “deeply about the city and the students coming of age in it.”
“It should never be the responsibility of survivors to mend the system of which they fell victim,” Aranda said. “The system that has failed us so miserably, allowed sex offenders with previous records into our schools, ignored multiple complaints of sexual misconduct, ignored the stories of victims and refused to act on our behalf for fear of causing a scene in the public eye.”
She had a major request for the school district: “I think you need to stop hiring sex predators, and I think you need to fire predators. And I think you need to not pay sex predators a pension.”
Reed, at age 14, received obscene text messages from her substitute teacher at Black Magnet Elementary, Aaron Williams-Banks, who was ultimately charged with indecent solicitation of a child. She said she spent weeks in her basement, hiding until her eighth grade graduation because of the pain and sadness she was experiencing.
Both victims said they were never offered any support from their respective schools.
CPS Chief of Safety and Security Jadine Chou outlined the changes CPS is undergoing in light of the Tribune investigation: a new partnership with the Children’s Advocacy Center to learn best practices on how to respond to sexual abuse and also how to prevent sexual abuse; the hiring of former assistant U.S attorney Maggie Hickey to do a full review of the district’s handing of sexual abuse.
Chou also said the district was re-checking backgrounds of all adults who regularly work in schools, including CPS employees, coaches, volunteers and vendors; periodically re-checking background to endure the district has the most up-to-date information about new arrests; transferring investigations of sexual abuse from the CPS Law Department to the Office of the Inspector General; asking the OIG to review all sexual abuse cases going back to 2000 to ensure the case were warranted and that the victims have received support; and creating a new policy to ensure employees report signs of predatory behavior and not just suspected abuse.
“We believe that these important steps will address the longstanding problems in the district and will begin to create a safer school district and hopefully rebuild the trust for out families and our children,” Chou said. “We will not rest until these steps and additional steps are taken.”
Chou, too, offered an apology to the victims.
“It does take a lot of courage, as many of you have said, to publicly go through this experience and we are very sorry for their experiences,” Chou said. “But as some of you have said earlier, apologies are not enough.”
Chou said the victims’ courage is “spurring definitive action.”