In lifeguard abuse scandals, accountability is a must

The sexual misconduct scandals at the Chicago Park District and Evanston beaches have revealed that young female lifeguards and beach workers are often surrounded by predatory supervisors and co-workers.

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Evanston’s South Boulevard Beach.

Evanston’s South Boulevard Beach.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A lifeguard’s job is to enforce beach or pool regulations and prevent swimmers from getting injured or drowning.

But as the sexual misconduct scandals at the Chicago Park District and Evanston beaches have revealed, young female lifeguards and beach workers are often engulfed in danger themselves — surrounded by predatory supervisors and co-workers who flout the rules against harassment and abuse.

Making it worse, when the girls and women called out for help, there was no life preserver in sight.

Until recently.

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The ceaseless reporting on the scandals by WBEZ’s Dan Mihalopoulos has led to resignations and firings, along with a tidal wave of much-needed scrutiny on the sexist lifeguard work culture in Chicago and Evanston.

Lawrence Hemingway, Evanston’s parks director, is the latest official in the north suburb to resign after the revelations of alleged rapes and abuse were uncovered. Hemingway quit on Monday, a day after Mihalopoulos’ most recent story was published in the Sun-Times and detailed how Evanston beach workers told higher-ups about the misconduct in July 2020.

When more than 50 current and former female workers signed a petition accusing their superiors of pervasive sexual harassment, abuse and assault, they did not come to Hemingway, former beach worker Anna Fredrick told WBEZ.

Why? They knew that Hemingway had been reprimanded in 2019 for calling a co-worker inappropriate names and commenting on her vacation photos in a bathing suit and on a beach. Given Hemingway’s history, the group — not surprisingly — didn’t feel comfortable coming to him with their complaints.

Telling other supervisors didn’t help much either. The public was kept in the dark about the petition and the accusations until last July in a WBEZ report on the disturbing allegations.

Other Evanston officials have quit, too, including recreation service manager Ray Doerner, City Manager Erika Storlie and Jennifer Lin, a top human resources official. Chicago’s lifeguard scandal forced Chicago Park District Supt. Michael Kelly and Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle to resign last year. Also, three top executives were fired.

Heads undoubtedly should roll when complaints of sexual harassment and abuse fall on deaf ears.

Years ago, a slap or pinch on a woman’s rear end in the workplace would often be laughed off or dismissed. Ignoring or burying sexual assault complaints and boorish, even criminal, behavior was the norm.

Not anymore — and rightly so.

Evanston said results of an investigation into the abuse allegations are expected shortly.

If it reveals more officials paid little or no heed to the allegations, perhaps more heads should roll.

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