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Two top Chicago Park District managers suspended in wake of sexual harassment and assault of female lifeguards

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly also announced the creation of a new “office of protection” to allow for better reporting and assessment of any future complaints.

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly announces on Monday disciplinary steps taken in the wake of female lifeguards getting sexually harassed and assaulted.
Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly announces on Monday disciplinary steps taken in the wake of female lifeguards getting sexually harassed and assaulted.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The head of the Chicago Park District Monday announced the “emergency suspension” of two “high-level” district employees, as well as seven others, in the wake of an investigation into a long-standing culture of sexual harassment and assault targeting female lifeguards.

Without naming them, Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly said the high-level district employees are the assistant director of beaches and pools, and the beaches and pools manager. Both were placed on suspension without pay Aug. 13, based on information Kelly said he received from Park District Inspector General Elaine Little.

In total, the district has taken disciplinary action against 42 employees since an investigation began in March 2020.

“I understand the frustration with the time it has taken to look into these complaints,” Kelly said, talking to reporters at the South Shore Cultural Center. “Investigations never happen fast enough, but I assure every person who has been impacted by this case that this is top of mind to me.”

Kelly referred to a “culture” that “clearly began decades ago.” And even as he talked about the on-going investigation and measures being to taken to stop misconduct, Kelly said five park district lifeguards were suspended just last week, after being caught drinking alcohol at work on city time.

“Stupid has no bounds,” he said.

About six female lifeguards at park district pools and beaches were sexually harassed and assaulted by male co-workers, with some of the harassment taking place in front of children, according to an internal investigation made public earlier this summer.

The explosive allegations, including an attempted rape, were in a report that hints at a cover-up.

All three male lifeguards who were accused no longer work for the park district. Two resigned during the investigation to avoid being fired. The third resigned earlier this year.

Of the six victims, two have filed police reports. The others, including the victim of the attempted rape, did not file criminal charges, fearing retaliation.

Sources have said the first sexual misconduct complaint was referred to Kelly in February 2020. Rather than reporting it to Little, Kelly referred that complaint to one of his managers. It wasn’t until a second complaint was referred to Kelly by the mayor’s office that the superintendent forwarded it to Little for a full investigation.

Asked about his response Monday, Kelly defended his actions, saying: “That is not unreasonable. That is actually quite normal to ask your management team to look into it first.”

Kelly said he forwarded the complaint to his chief programs officer, Alonzo Williams, who then had Eric Fischer, the district’s assistant director of recreation, look into it. But Fischer’s daughter is also mentioned as a lifeguard who allegedly participated in hazing and bullying in the district, sources said.

“This is all part of the investigation, and it’s all going to come out,” Kelly said when asked about a possible conflict of interest Monday. “I don’t want to get any further into talking about my employees’ names.”

Kelly was asked Monday if he continues to have the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot during the scandal, which was first reported by WBEZ.

He said they are of a “like mind on this.”

“Do I think I’m going to be around? I started this. I’m going to finish it,” he said.

On Monday, Kelly also announced the creation of a new “office of protection” to allow for better reporting and assessment of any future complaints.

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly made the announcement  during a news conference Monday at the South Shore Beach House.
Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly made the announcement during a news conference Monday at the South Shore Beach House.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times