Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson launched a new department Wednesday to respond to allegations of sex abuse and bullying in schools, the latest in a series of announcements aimed at reassuring parents of their children’s safety at school.
“It’s our responsibility to get this right, and I will do everything within my power to make sure this happens,” Jackson told reporters at district headquarters downtown before the Board of Education’s monthly meeting.
Within hours, though, she chided the Chicago Teachers Union, saying that keeping students safe at school was a “collaborative effort.”
“What I will not do is allow CPS and my shoulders alone to be the only shoulders that bear the responsibility for fixing this issue,” Jackson told union vice president Jesse Sharkey after he complained of learning about the new 20-member department from a reporter.
“It’s not going to change unless it’s a collaborative effort,” Jackson continued at the first school board meeting since a newspaper investigation revealed systematic weaknesses in CPS’ ability to keep kids safe from sexual abuse.
Among the new policies the school board unanimously approved Wednesday was adding “grooming” of students to the list of abusive behaviors, and annual training of all mandated reporters, or staff required to call authorities if they suspect abuse or neglect. CPS also now requires staff to report to principals any adult behavior with students that seemed odd even if it wasn’t explicitly abuse, such as a teacher alone in a classroom with a student.
“That’s kind of what tutoring looks like,” said Sharkey, asking for more “clarity” on how the stronger reporting rules would affect educators.
“The people who actually have to make this work are the frontline workers in schools,” he said.
Mahalia Hines, the longest serving school board member, also worried that overzealous rules could cause “many of our kids … to lose out on a connection that they would have with their teachers and principal.”
But school board president Frank Clark approved of erring on the side of caution “until we believe that we have provided every protection possible.”
That infuriated parents from the group Raise Your Hand, who accused the appointed school board of being part of the problem. Clark and his predecessors would have known about many of the 400 sexual abuse cases CPS’ legal department investigated during the last seven years because the top attorney reports to the board president.
“We know and knew that appointed boards have an inherent conflict in that you end up working to preserve and protect the image of the person who appointed you above and beyond all else,” Jennie Biggs said. “You hold the keys to district policy-making, and you did not act. You did not do your jobs. You did not ensure schools were being trained and you should step down and admit you are part of a flawed system of school governance that has no checks and balances.”
Clark didn’t respond. Nor would CPS spokesman Michael Passman say when Clark was first told of the abuse cases.
“The Board President is briefed on significant investigations and legal actions, and whenever he has been presented with a matter involving sexual abuse he has pushed CPS staff to help ensure district
practices are as strong as possible,” he said in an email.
The creation of the new “Office of Student Protection and Title IX” — a reference to the federal education law barring discrimination based on sex — did not require board approval.
At a cost of $3 million, the department reporting directly to CPS’ CEO will oversee investigations of student-on-student bullying and abuse, refer complaints of student abuse by adults to the schools’ inspector general and oversee support for students who come forward, Jackson said.
Having one central office is important in dealing with issues that are “so complex,” as is having specially trained people to ensure “nothing gets missed, nothing gets lost,” Jackson said.
And while investigating incidents between students and adults is “critically important,” allegations of abuse between students must also be a key focus of the district, she said. “We also have an obligation and an opportunity to raise up a generation that understands that this behavior is no longer acceptable,” she said at an early morning news conference.
The department has been developed with help from a former federal prosecutor hired to help CPS clean house following a Chicago Tribune investigation spelling out CPS’ shortcomings in protecting students against sexual abuse. Until a leader is selected, one of CPS’ top attorneys, Doug Henning, will get the unit started.
Schools officials have regularly announced new actions and student protections in recent weeks including the transfer of abuse cases going forward from the internal legal department to the independent schools Inspector General. Earlier this week, they also reassigned two South Side principals as part of an investigation of how well those school leaders responded to student reports of abuse.