New Park District chief pledges to put in place a ‘culture of respect’ following lifeguard abuse scandal

“We’re not just giving you lip service here,” Chicago Park District CEO Rosa Escareno said of changes being made at the Chicago Park District.

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Rosa Escareño, Interim CEO of the Chicago Park District, speaks to a group of community members and reporters, during a town hall meeting at Horner Park’s field house, where Escareño gave a presentation on the new Office of Prevention and Accountability, Monday, March 21, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At a town hall meeting Monday, the head of the Chicago Park District reassured a concerned mother that policy changes being put in place would prevent supervisors from taking advantage of young lifeguards — the sort of behavior that caused a sexual misconduct scandal last year.

“As superintendent, you have my word that I will do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again,” Park District CEO Rosa Escareno told an audience at the Horner Park field house before listing a number of reforms that would increase accountability and give young lifeguards confidence to recognize and report bad behavior.

“We’re not just giving you lip service here,” she said.

Escareno is serving as interim chief. Her predecessor, Michael Kelly, stepped down after a number of instances involving the abuse of female lifeguards at public beaches and pools came to light last year.

A woman who asked only to be identified as a mom from the North Center neighborhood said she has a daughter who is 15 and is in a junior lifeguards program. She wanted reassurance that part of a revamped training curriculum for future lifeguards would include information about “no touch” zones on the body.

Escareno assured her that such training would be in place and that the Chicago Park District’s newly formed Office of Prevention and Accountability would take unprecedented steps to create a “culture of respect.”

After the meeting the mother said her daughter had been put in inappropriate situations a few years ago.

“I was not comfortable with the conduct of leaders in that program, like asking her for social media, asking her to take a walk. And once I pointed that out to her, she had an ‘aha! moment’ and it didn’t happen again because she realized it was not appropriate, but not every kid has that realization,” she said.

She says she now feels better about the direction the park district is heading.

“I trust the process. I feel like this demonstrates it’s being taken seriously,” she said.

Still, she is keeping a close eye on things and if in a year “I don’t see evidence of that ... I might have a different opinion.”

Monday’s meeting was the first of three such town hall meetings that will allow residents to offer input before an April board vote that would officially approve the creation of the Office of Prevention and Accountability.

Another upcoming meeting is slated for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Fosco Park, 1312 S. Racine Ave. A virtual meeting will also be held March 29. 

Also at Monday’s meeting, former 33rd Ward Ald. Deb Mell, during a question and answer session with audience members, suggested the park district acquire the land along the Chicago River that formerly housed Gordon Tech High School and turn it into green space.

“We’ll look into it. We just need more money,” Escareno responded.

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