Chicago Park District fired lifeguard accused of having ‘inappropriately touched’ girl

The unidentified lifeguard was fired on the recommendation of the park district’s inspector general after the girl’s accusation last summer.

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A sign at a city of Chicago pool announcing it’s open only when a lifeguard is on duty.

An unidentified Chicago Park District lifeguard has been fired after allegations that he inappropriately touched an underage female program participant last summer, according to a recent report from the park district’s inspector general.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The Chicago Park District has fired a male lifeguard who allegedly “inappropriately touched” a girl participating in a parks program, according to a new report from the agency’s internal watchdog.

The firing of the unidentified lifeguard came two years after allegations of sexual assault, abuse and harassment surfaced at the city’s public beaches and pools. That scandal led to criminal charges against two male lifeguards, the resignations of top Chicago Park District officials — and promises of reform from Rosa Escareño, the agency’s general superintendent and chief executive officer.

In the recent case, the park district’s inspector general’s investigation began with “a complaint that a male lifeguard inappropriately touched an underage female program participant during the summer of 2022,” records show.

Investigators “obtained photos of one of the incidents” they said “showed the lifeguard grappling with the victim in an attempt to throw her into the water,” according to the inspector general’s office’s latest quarterly report. “The victim reported that [the] actions made her feel uncomfortable.”

The report, released Wednesday, doesn’t say how old she was or where what she described happened.

Alison Perona, the park district’s interim inspector general, could not be reached.

The male lifeguard was “terminated from employment” on the inspector general’s recommendation, and the accusations were forwarded to the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Both agencies are investigating, according to the inspector general.

Parks officials said they fired the lifeguard immediately after receiving the inspector general’s report, saying, “Any conduct that compromises the safety, respect and well-being of employees and patrons will not be tolerated.”

In a written statement, parks officials said they’re “proud of the reforms made over the past year,” among them establishing an Office of Prevention and Accountability that “became fully operational in February.”

Park district officials did not identify the fired lifeguard.

In the inspector general’s report, investigators said they tried to get training records for the male lifeguard, but the park district “had no central database for training records and did not have guidelines or controls for retention of training records.”

In response, the park district said it’s developing a system “to centralize training records that are currently housed in multiple departments,” saying that “will ensure that records of mandatory trainings for all employees, both year-round and seasonal, will be accounted for and easily accessible to track compliance.”

The park district’s inspector general’s office began investigating accusations of sexual misconduct targeting lifeguards in 2020. That was after two young female former lifeguards sent detailed letters to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Michael Kelly, who was the parks chief executive officer.

WBEZ broke the news of the investigation in April 2021. Little had been done at that point to respond to the problems, according to a report by a former federal prosecutor hired by the park district board.

The scandal led to the resignations of top parks officials, including Kelly and Avis Lavelle, who was president of the park board.

Escareño, who replaced Kelly, apologized to lifeguards and promised reforms, saying at a public forum the park district was “not just giving you lip service here.”

The inspector general reported last year that her office found proof to back up 29 accusations against employees in the park district’s aquatics department, concluding that “bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx opened her own investigation and charged two lifeguard supervisors with sex crimes.

A year ago, Mauricio Ramirez, then 32, admitted committing sex crimes against younger female employees he supervised, becoming the first parks employee convicted in that investigation. Ramirez was sentenced to three years of probation, 40 hours of community service, electronic monitoring and lifetime sex-offender registration after pleading guilty to two felony charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

The second case, against Hector Coz, another former lifeguard supervisor charged with sex crimes, is still pending, according to court records.

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