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CPS: It was ‘inappropriate’ to say departure of teacher accused of sex assault was ‘bittersweet’

The state is also investigating why it didn’t notify CPS of the allegation when it learned about it a year and a half ago.

Senn High School
Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

More than a month after Chicago Public Schools removed a teacher who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student, his school sent an email to parents saying he had left the school “to pursue a new opportunity” and implied the school would miss him.

“As excited as we are for him on this new endeavor, his departure from Senn Arts is bittersweet,” Principal Mary Beck wrote of the school’s longtime theater director, Joel Ewing.

But on Wednesday — a day after Ewing was charged with criminal sexual assault — CPS acknowledged that letter was wrong.

“It was inappropriate to have characterized Mr. Ewing’s departure in such terms while an investigation was ongoing into the serious allegations against him,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement.

CPS was not the only public agency examining how it responded to the allegations Wednesday.

State failed to notify CPS

The state’s child welfare agency says it’s looking into why Chicago Public School wasn’t notified when allegations were first reported against the theater director of Senn High School.

The Department of Children and Family services was notified in January 2018 that Ewing had sexually assaulted a student, according to a spokesman for the agency.

DCFS began an investigation and reported the allegations to Chicago police, but never reached out to the school, the spokesman said. An investigation is now pending into why that didn’t happen.

Typically, the spokesman said, the agency will “immediately contact” the school as part of their investigation, request personnel files, inquire about any other complaints against the accused individual and interview other students.

Because the school was never contacted, it is unlikely that DCFS conducted those steps in their investigation, the spokesman said, though the agency did interview Ewing at the time.

Because the victim asked to remain anonymous, Chicago police said they were unable to substantiate any of the claims and suspended their investigation. A spokesman for police said Wednesday that they have no record of whether detectives informed CPS about the allegations at that time and said that Ewing was not interviewed.

DCFS said their investigation into why the school wasn’t notified will take several weeks to complete. If significant errors are uncovered, the matter could then be forwarded to the agency’s inspector general’s office.

The now 21-year-old woman who filed the anonymous complaint in 2018 eventually came forward earlier this year because she was concerned that Ewing was still working with youth actors, Cook County prosecutors said during Ewing’s bail hearing Tuesday, where he was accused of sexually assaulting the girl multiple times over a few years.

Senn High School officials were notified of the allegations July 26 and Ewing was immediately removed from his position, Bolton said.

She said the district had no comment on the fact it wasn’t notified by DCFS or police when the allegations first surfaced.

Beck sent a note to parents immediately, at the time, noting, “There has been an allegation that one of our staff members engaged inappropriately with a former CPS student. This employee has been removed from the school, and an investigation has been initiated by the Office of the Inspector General. Please know that we are taking this situation seriously, and we remain committed to providing our students with a safe, positive learning environment.”

Ewing’s departure wasn’t mentioned until the letter sent to theater parents, which was dated Sept. 5 but wasn’t received by parents until Tuesday, but Beck said nothing of the investigation.

“This year, we are beginning our first year without our founding theater teacher Joel Ewing, who, with his family, is leaving Chicago to pursue a new opportunity,” she wrote.

In a letter sent later Tuesday, Beck announced that Ewing had been removed because of allegations of “inappropriate behavior.”

She hasn’t responded to requests to comment.

‘It was lying’

Parents attending meetings at Senn High School Wednesday night said they were unnerved by the communications from the principal. One parent, who asked not to be identified, said Beck didn’t appear to be telling the truth in the Sept. 5 letter.

“I think it was lying, and that concerns me,” the parent said.

Parents who attended a curriculum meeting specifically about the theater program said the allegations against Ewing were discussed, but declined to comment further. A Sun-Times reporter was turned away from the school and was told the meetings were not open to the public.

“They’re handling it,” one parent said.