Amid accusations that Young Chicago Authors has for years failed to do enough about complaints of sexual assault, Chicago Public Schools on Friday suspended its partnership with the group and launched an investigation into whether any students in the program had been harmed.
CPS inspector general Will Fletcher told the Sun-Times his office is trying to determine “whether any CPS students were affected or harmed by alleged misconduct in YCA programs, as well to ensure that any allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse were appropriately reported.”
In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said the district is “deeply concerned” by the allegations but wasn’t aware of any prior complaints involving the program. Even so, CPS is pausing the program and contacting principals, families and students involved with the group.
On Thursday, the group announced the ouster of longtime artistic director Kevin Coval and the resignation of executive director Rebecca Hunter, as calls for public accountability grew.
Hunter on Friday discussed the leadership shake-up and admitted more could have been done about sexual assault allegations against a contracted artist.
She said she saw the need for new management last year, but the pandemic delayed her departure. Hunter, with the organization since 2011, began talking to the board of directors last summer about stepping away. To ensure a smooth transition, she agreed to stay until June 2021.
It became clear last week, though, that it was time for her to go.
“I completely understand that YCA needs a new iteration of leadership,” Hunter told the Sun-Times Friday. “ . . . After kind of talking with [staff] and hearing from them about the need for them to be able to carry YCA forward I’m like, ‘I get it, I completely understand it.’ It’s a really complex situation and some actions were taken, but there was way more public and community accountability that needed to happen. And I can take responsibility for that.”
Founded nearly three decades ago, Young Chicago Authors seeks to promote creative writing among teens and young adults and create a safe place for them to express themselves. But over the past several years, the organization has been criticized for how it handled allegations of sexual assault.
On Wednesday, Button Poetry founder and president Sam Van Cook warned in a statement that “Coval’s leadership at YCA is a clear and present danger to the thousands of young people served through YCA and Louder Than a Bomb.”
Louder Than a Bomb is an annual youth poetry festival, founded by Coval, that Young Chicago Authors has held for more than 20 years.
Attempts by the Sun-Times to reach Coval for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
Hunter said she first heard the allegations in the summer of 2013 after a group of poets formed a “safety council” at a national event to identify “sexual predators” within their community. Hunter said she learned the list of predators included an artist who at the time was under contract to Young Chicago Authors.
The alleged abuser was suspended while the organization investigated the claims, Hunter said.
In September 2013, the organization decided not to renew the artist’s contract, according to Hunter. But that didn’t stop the artist from working at other youth literacy organizations.
Some critics have argued Hunter had a responsibility to stop the alleged abuser from continuing to work in the poetry community.
She said the Young Chicago Authors board considered publicly identifying the alleged abuser but decided against it, based on legal advice. She said the group informed stakeholders and others in the poetry community that Young Chicago Authors severed ties with the artist after receiving statements from three people accusing that artist of sexual violence.
“It’s a really complex situation . . . On the one half, there is a very clear community expectation [of public accountability] and on the other half, there are some legal constraints, and those two things are often at odds but I don’t want to make an excuse,” said Hunter, who said she was unaware of any legal action that has been taken against the accused offender.
A Chicago Police Department spokesperson said the department hasn’t received any complaints involving Young Chicago Authors in the last year.
Looking back, Hunter believes Young Chicago Artists could’ve done more to support those who made those allegations.
The group “didn’t do enough community convening and town halls and listening sessions with people to just kind of process this [person’s] harm and and come together to heal together,” Hunter said. “Those things didn’t happen, and the community needed that and wanted that.”
Hunter knows why some believe the organization instilled a culture of silence, saying leadership “fell short” in handling the allegations.
“The approach was very much kind of working internally to mitigate, but that’s not enough,” Hunter said. “And so when you’re not out there publicly protesting a person, that can be experienced as a culture of silence for sure.”
Demetrius Amparan, an alum of the group, will succeed Hunter on an interim basis. Previously, he served as the organization’s manager of donor relations and director of publications and communication.