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Sex abuse complaints could be underreported at charter schools, watchdog says

Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Nicholas Schuler, pictured at a December 2017 Board of Education meeting. | James Foster / Sun-Times

The rate of sexual misconduct allegations reported by Chicago charter school students is less than a third of the rate of complaints logged by their district public school counterparts.

That’s despite a steady uptick in the number of complaints reviewed by district investigators and increased awareness citywide — raising eyebrows in the office of Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

“It definitely does suggest that there’s underreporting from the charter schools, and we’re trying to figure that out,” Schuler told Chicago Board of Education members on Wednesday. “It’s a pretty big number, and I think it would be hard to explain away.”

Fifteen complaints were filed from October through the end of March at charter schools, which serve more than 53,000 students, according to Schuler’s office. Through the same period, 295 complaints were filed from among the nearly 308,000 district students.

That scales out to about 96 complaints for every 100,000 CPS students — over three times more than the roughly 28 complaints for the same number of charter students.

“We’re trying to figure out, do [charter operators] understand that they need to follow the same policy?” Schuler said. “Has there been enough of a message about getting this out there? We want to make sure that they’re reporting these and they’re being investigated by us.”

In a statement, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools said “the well-being and safety of all students is paramount in charter schools.

“Charter public schools are CPS district schools and remain committed to working with Chicago’s inspector general in reporting suspected abuse, Title IX training of teachers and staff and compliance with other policies and procedures designed to ensure the safety of every public school student,” the organization said.

Schuler cautioned that his office hasn’t made any final determination that underreporting is happening, acknowledging that further analysis could reveal similar disparities in district schools across different parts of the city.

Charter operators are required to sign off on the district’s new sexual abuse reporting policies as they renew their charter agreements, CPS General Counsel Joe Moriarty said.

The figures presented by Schuler offered the latest look at complaints filed in the wake of district-wide lapses revealed last summer in the handling of sex abuse claims.

The inspector said complaints are still coming in “at a pretty good clip,” with an average of nearly three filed per school day from October through March — enough for Schuler to ask the board to approve 10 new positions for his Sexual Allegations Unit, with new attorneys and investigators to stay on top of the steady caseload.

More than 2,000 complaints have been filed since the start of the school year with the district’s new Office of Student Protections. About three quarters of those cases involve student-on-student allegations. Cases involving CPS adults are automatically referred to Schuler’s office.

As of this week, 76 adults had been pulled from CPS schools pending investigations for allegations ranging from “creepy behavior” to sex abuse.

That’s up from the 33 who had been removed as of Jan. 1. Five of those adults have been reinstated, Schuler said Wednesday.

Ten substitute teachers have been blocked from CPS as a result of complaints through this week, eight employees have retired or resigned in the wake of allegations and 14 have been fired, Schuler said.

Among the terminated workers are six security guards, two coaches, a dean, lunch monitor teacher, special education classroom assistant, substitute and a vendor employee. The 76 pulled employees include 34 teachers and 13 security guards.

“Greater awareness has led to increased vigilance and greater reporting, and that is exactly what we want to see,” said Camie Pratt, the newly installed head of the Office of Student Protections. “We’re starting to create a culture where reporting is acceptable.”

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