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Despite promise to victim, Park District boss waited weeks to report sexual harassment complaint

‘I take your assertions very seriously. Thank you for your courage,’ Park District Supt. Mike Kelly told the victim, whose graphic complaint detailed physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol abuse by lifeguards. But it was weeks before Kelly did anything.

The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach along the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago.
Several lifeguards for the Chicago Park District have alleged they were sexually harassed or assaulted.
Getty

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly assured a female lifeguard he would launch an immediate investigation of her complaints about physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach, but waited six weeks — when a more graphic complaint was referred to him by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — to order the internal probe.

“Thank you for sending this report. I am forwarding it to our Inspector General for an independent investigation,” Kelly wrote to the young woman in a Feb. 7, 2020, email reviewed by the Sun-Times.

“I have not had a chance to read it yet, but I will and I take your assertions very seriously. Thank you for your courage and call for change.”

Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons would not make Kelly available for an interview. Nor did she answer specific questions. Instead she referred to a June 23 letter posted on the Park District website in which Kelly says he took “immediate action” when notified of allegations of misconduct, though the specific allegations are not spelled out in that letter.

But sources have told the Sun-Times the inspector general’s office didn’t receive the February allegations until mid-March.

In spite of Kelly’s promise, he sat on the February complaint, which named the daughter of a high-ranking Park District official as having participated in the alleged hazing. Only after Lightfoot forwarded a complaint from a second woman to Kelly on March 17 did the superintendent ask Elaine Little, the Park District’s inspector general, to initiate an internal investigation.

The delay runs contrary to Park District rules, which require alleged wrongdoing to be reported immediately to the inspector general. So does the ordinance creating the inspector general’s office. The Park District’s sexual harassment policy requires allegations be reported “as soon as possible,” or within five business days, to human resources.

The Park District has a core group of lifeguards who serve as year-round employees, staffing indoor pools during cold-weather months and outdoor pools and beaches during the summer. Those full-time employees are supplemented by seasonal lifeguards who work between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The young woman’s 11-page complaint to Kelly in February 2020 describes a frat house atmosphere at Oak Street Beach during the summer of 2019, perpetrated by specific lifeguards she named.

At a “rookie initiation,” the woman said, garbage bags were put around the necks of newly-hired lifeguards “if you need to throw up.” When the woman said she was scared, she was told: “You should be.”

The rookies were handed “two jello shots” and told to finish them before singing a lewd, profanity-laced and sexually explicit “fight song.”

“The lifeguards made us sing it over and over and stay in a push-up position until we got it right,” she wrote. “I refused multiple times because of how degrading and inappropriate it is.”

The woman claimed that, when she and another female lifeguard refused to drink two pints of beer taped to their hands, one man started “grabbing me and trying to force a bottle of vodka down my throat.”

Two rookie lifeguards who finished their beer “ran to the trash cans and threw up for about five minutes straight — to the point of one of them passing out and not waking up till later on.”

All night, she wrote, “Bottles of alcohol were forced at me and pens that had weed in them were put in my face.” Refusal would lead to “rotting,” in which other lifeguards would leave her at a post for hours at a time without a break. Telling other guards to stop joking about suicide, declining invitations to subsequent parties or refusing to get high on the job with the others likewise would lead to “rotting.”

The young woman says she continued to pay a price for refusing to party with colleagues.

“Throughout the rest of the summer, the names bitch, slut, whore, p---y, and c--t became my regular name that multiple lifeguards called me,” said the complaint, reviewed by the Sun-Times. Other girls were routinely called “fat.”

The torture didn’t stop at the end of the job, either. Lifeguards daring to resign were subjected to a “shake and bake” — other lifeguards would dig a hole, throw them in and kick sand in their face. “It is always the guys grabbing the girls,” she wrote.

One male guard hit everybody in the back of the neck “as a joke.” After hitting the complainant “extremely hard,” she pushed him away and told him to leave her alone.

“Little did I know what would come next. He charged toward me so fast and ended up slamming/throwing me into the metal wall of the guard room and called me a p---y and a bitch. He was very high also during that time.” The shove left a “giant bruise” on her leg.

The drug use continued on duty. Sometimes, she wrote, the guards would duck into the guard room to get high on weed, leaving just one guard to watch the beach.

“It was sometimes hard to breathe in the guard room because of how strong the smell would be,” she wrote. “I would see the guards hide their pens in their sleeves and smoke it through the sleeve.”

Testing didn’t stop them, either, she said, as some lifeguards “faked their drug tests with other people’s pee.”

The final indignity for her came at the Oak Street Beach banquet, thrown by the senior guards. Fearing she had to go or face even worse treatment, she took her sister with her as protection.

For her trouble, she was handed a “broken oar award,” invented by the guards for the person they considered the worst lifeguard. Other guards were named “bitch of the beach”, “manwhore of the beach” and “slut of the beach.”

“After the awards were given, the banquet lasted three hours and not only were many of the guards on drugs, but underage guards were drinking alcohol and many of the girls were grabbed in ways they should not have been grabbed,” she wrote.

Finally, she quit. The woman said she decided to report the atmosphere of abuse because “somebody could get hurt extremely bad … A girl could get sexually harassed or raped by one of the lifeguards that are high and not in the correct mental state. I would not be surprised if someone tried to harm themselves or even take their own life because of how bad they are treated. The lifeguards made me feel horrible about myself and even told me to kill myself because it would be funny if I did.”

She ended her complaint to Kelly:

“Please make a change and save the next lifeguard from being treated the way I did. Someone’s life could be at stake.”

About six weeks later, a different woman wrote to the mayor describing “a toxic environment” and “a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District — from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape. ... Those who do want to speak up are met with harsh criticism.”

A seasonal lifeguard for the previous six years, the second woman said she was sexually assaulted at age 17 “by another employee in a more senior position than I.”

Three co-workers she told weren’t surprised because similar things had happened to them.

“When I tried to speak up, I was called a ‘kissy whore’ and a ‘slut’ not only by fellow coworkers but also by managers.”

The second woman claimed sexual abuse was rampant but few complaints are made because there is “little faith in the management of the Chicago Park District Lifeguard Service.”

“Employees see how the perpetrators of sexual violence are either getting promoted to management positions or being allowed to continue working at their current positions, even after complaints are made about them,” the second woman wrote to Lightfoot in a two-page letter read by the Sun-Times.

“There is what I would call a ‘Code of Silence’ in the Park District, in which those in positions of authority will have each other’s backs no matter what happens.”

In an explosive report made public last month, the Park District’s inspector general described how roughly a half-dozen female lifeguards at Park District pools and beaches were sexually harassed and assaulted by three male co-workers.

Her report hinted at a cover-up.

Since then, sources said, the investigation first disclosed by WBEZ-FM (91.5) has expanded to include at least 15 female lifeguards.