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CPS’ handling of sexual abuse cases ‘tragic and inexcusable,’ feds say in ordering major overhaul

CPS entered into a legally binding oversight agreement after federal investigators found widespread “disturbing” cases of sexual violence against students.

Chicago Public Schools officials Monday released a much-anticipated proposed calendar for the 2020-21 school year. Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools has agreed to a “substantial overhaul” of how it handles sexual violence and harassment cases after a federal investigation found “glaring and heartbreaking” problems in the district.

Federal officials at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on Thursday said during an investigation of CPS’ response to complaints of sex abuse — which turned into the largest probe of its kind in department history — they found “widespread and systemic” mishandling of thousands of incidents dating back to 2012.

The situation “is one of the worst that we have seen in the elementary, secondary school context,” Kenneth Marcus, the department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, said in a conference call with reporters. “The findings were deeply disturbing. The incidents that formed the basis of OCR’s investigation are tragic and inexcusable, so too was CPS’ response to the incidents.”

In an email to parents, CPS CEO Janice Jackson vowed to correct the district’s mistakes.

“These were tragic incidents in which some students did not receive the comprehensive support they deserved,” she wrote. “As a district, we have been working to ensure no student ever goes through that again.”

‘Substantial overhaul’

The legally binding agreement between the Department of Education and CPS includes federal monitoring of the district’s changes for three years and possible withholding of federal funding if the district doesn’t adequately follow through with the plan.

“We’re not talking about minor tweaks to policy,” Marcus said. “We’re talking about a substantial overhaul.”

As part of the agreement, CPS is required to: provide people who feel their complaints were mishandled the opportunity for a new investigation; develop a comprehensive process for responding to complaints; review any actions taken and enact discipline against current and former employees who mishandled cases.

The agreement was “developed to ensure that this will not happen again,” Marcus said. “This is something that we will not stand for. ... When parents send their children to school they must be able to have confidence that their children are safe.”

Speaking later in the day Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she, too, was “outraged” when details of the school sex abuse scandal at CPS broke last year before she was in office.

But she says the district has already made changes to make sure students are protected.

“I feel comfortable that Dr. Jackson and her team, frankly, learned a very, very valuable lesson about making sure that we’re doing everything that we can inside the classroom to keep our students safe,” she said. The district initiated “very rigid background checks on people who are engaging with students” and now has “an appropriate process to do the investigation where we’re not re-victimizing young children.”

The Chicago Teachers Union called it a “blistering” report that exposed the need for more accountability among officials and more staff that could help identify abuse.

“We have called for adequate and enforceable staffing of the experts and professionals —including certified school nurses and social workers — who are equipped to work with educators to flag signs of abuse and support children who are victims of abuse,” union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said in a statement. “Thousands of us are both educators and parents of CPS students — and for every educator, our responsibility first and foremost is to protect the children in our care.”

Probe launched in 2015

The federal investigation started with two “significant” complaints made on behalf of CPS students — one in May 2015 and the other in November 2016 — who said the district “failed to properly respond” when told of sexual harassment and assault incidents.

The earlier complaint involved a former high school student who said she was sexually harassed by one of her teachers during the 2012-13 school year. The student said the teacher bought her gifts, complimented her looks and texted her photos of himself before he took her out, bought her alcohol and forced himself on her. CPS had already received three complaints against the same teacher.

The second incident involved a student who said she was sexually assaulted in a vacant building by a group of 13 male students — 7 of whom she recognized as classmates — who surrounded her on her walk home from school.

In the ensuing look into CPS’ handling of sexual violence and harassment cases from 2012-13 to 2017-18, the department said it found more than 3,000 “teacher-on-student” and “student-on-student” incidents at more than 400 schools that were not properly handled.

Among the findings, Marcus said, was that from 1999 to December of last year, CPS “did not even have a Title IX coordinator,” a federally mandated position that oversees schools’ enforcement of sexual discrimination laws.

“This is a basic requirement of federal civil rights law,” Marcus said.

Even when CPS hired an interim Title IX coordinator in December and a full-time one in March, they didn’t — and still don’t — have the full authority to handle sexual violence cases and can be overruled in some cases by CPS attorneys, Marcus said.

He noted federal officials have been “pleased” that CPS has recently begun to take steps to correct its problems — measures that Jackson noted in her letter to parents, and that include opening a new Office of Student Protections and Title IX, creating a new training system for employees and conducting new background checks.

The Office of Student Protections and Title IX said earlier this summer that it was looking into hundreds of cases involving student-on-student sexual misconduct accusations. That was aside from the school district’s top watchdog, who told the city’s school board in July that he received more than 450 complaints of sexual misconduct by adults in a nine-month period — about three per school day — spanning nearly the entire past school year.

By July, CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler said 23 employees were fired in response to the allegations, and dozens more adults were pulled from their schools pending investigation.

But Marcus said those corrective actions still don’t go far enough.

“It’s clear that there is a great deal more that they need to do, and this resolution agreement explains that,” Marcus said.

Lightfoot takes criticism ‘with grain of salt’

In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was highly critical of the school district.

“The failures of Chicago Public Schools were widespread, glaring and heartbreaking. Too many innocent young students suffered because adults didn’t do their jobs,” DeVos said.

Although Lightfoot expressed concerns about how complaints were handled in the past, she sloughed off some of the sharp criticism by President Trump’s Education Department.

“Look, this is the same Department of Education headed up by Betsy DeVos? Yeah. Well, I take a little bit of what they say with a grain of salt,” she said.

“As you see as a theme, there are members of the federal government who think it’s appropriate to tee off against Chicago. ... Nevertheless, we’re gonna do what’s necessary to keep our children safe.”