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Park District budget includes $600K for new sex abuse prevention unit

Parks CEO Rosa Escareno also announced that hiring of lifeguards for summer 2022 would be pushed back until “intensive” training is conducted.

People lay out, swim, and relax at Oak Street Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
People relaxing at Oak Street Beach in August.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Park District officials will spend at least $617,139 and hire five investigators for a new unit tasked with preventing and investigating sexual assault and supporting victims as part of a $510.9 million budget passed unanimously Wednesday.

As district leaders continue to clean up Park District staff and practices following a rampant sexual abuse and assault scandal among city lifeguards, interim CEO Rosa Escareno also announced that hiring of lifeguards for next summer would be pushed back until “intensive” training is conducted.

“We are delaying the start of the next program, which starts in January. We are delaying it by a couple of weeks — taking two weeks to actually do a very intense training of the Aquatics Division. That’s just one example of how we are revisiting what the organization has been doing in relation to training,” Escareno said.

“When we talk about prevention and accountability, it’s because we meant that. Our job is to prevent this from ever even happening. And when it does happen, people will be held accountable. ... This training does not absolve individuals of that. ... [But] if you do not train your staff correctly — if they don’t know the rules of the road and understand the consequences they will face — then it’s all for nothing.”

The new Office of Prevention and Accountability had been announced by former Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly before Mayor Lori Lightfoot forced him out.

Precise powers and budget for the new office were not known — even after Escareno unveiled the $510.9 million budget last month.

On Wednesday, Escareno told the board the $617,139 office would be staffed at least initially by a team of five. That includes: a director, a senior investigator, two more investigators and a “case intake specialist.” The budget does not include funding for training, which will come from elsewhere in the Park District budget, she said.

“We are at a pivotal moment at the Chicago Park District and we have a responsibility to rise to this occasion and make the real, long-term changes that this moment demands,” Escareno told the board.

Calling the $617,139-a-year budget a “first step,” Escareno said she plans to return to the board next month seeking approval of “changes to the Chicago Park District code that will fully empower” the new office “to prevent misconduct and hold offenders accountable through independent, impartial and thorough investigations.”

“The code amendments will also give the office ... the responsibility to coordinate access to support services, help develop training, implement new Park District policies ... and provide for the appointment of the director of the new office by the superintendent with the advice and consent of the board,” she said.

Well aware Kelly and former board chairwoman Avis LaVelle had kept park board members in the dark about the lifeguard scandal, Escareno said: “It will also establish a mandated, regular reporting structure and include a number of checks and balances to ensure the office is able to conduct investigations independently.”

Park Board members didn’t blanche at the thought of devoting the money to the new office. In fact, said newly-appointed board member Modesto Valle: “I’m wondering if this is enough money. ... Have we done benchmarking on salaries to make sure we attract the best for these positions?”

Escareno described the budget as a “starting point,” adding: “I am not going to be shy. ... If this office over the first year feels that it needs more resources, it is going to be a priority. We will come back. We will request additional resources.”

Wednesday’s board meeting was the first chaired by interim Park Board President Tim King. The founder and CEO of Urban Prep School, King stepped up after LaVelle was forced out for her poor handling of sexual misconduct among lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

Currently, sex abuse complaints by employees are supposed to be reported to the parks’ human resources department or to the district’s inspector general’s office. But that didn’t always happen, as revealed earlier this year, when the Chicago Sun-Times reported what an independent investigator would later confirm: that then-CEO Michael Kelly sat on a teenage lifeguard’s detailed, heartbreaking complaint of abuse and harassment for six weeks before sending it up the chain — and then only after a second lifeguard sent a more damning complaint to the mayor’s office.

Kelly was forced to resign and three top aides were fired in disciplinary proceedings Escareno has promised will continue.

As for the $510.9 million budget, which does not raise fees on park district programs, it includes a rare property tax increase of $4.3 million, which amounts to about $4 more per year for the average homeowner, as the park district restores its programs to pre-pandemic levels.