Park District watchdog releases update on lifeguard abuse, harassment scandal

The park district inspector general’s annual report includes new details on the ongoing investigation of the aquatics department.

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A life guard tower at Oak Street Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

A life guard tower at Oak Street Beach, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A new report from the watchdog for the Chicago Park District sheds more light on rampant sexual abuse and harassment among lifeguards, including how managers and other senior officials failed to report allegations of misconduct.

In the annual report, the park district’s inspector general noted that incidents of bullying, misconduct or harassment in the Aquatics Department made up the majority of the 55 cases it investigated last year.

The report, released Wednesday, included a detailed update on the ongoing investigation spanning almost two years, much of it playing out in public. The scandal forced Chicago Park District Supt. Michael Kelly to resign, and three top executives were fired.

This latest report provides slightly more details of the allegations and the steps taken by the park district. Some employees have reprimanded, others fired. Some, including others who resigned, have been added to a “do not rehire” list.

The update reinforced previous reporting on a culture within the aquatics department that allowed for abuse and harassment to flourish, as senior supervisors and managers turned a blind eye — or even engaged in misconduct themselves.

According to the report, the park district followed the inspector general’s recommendations and took appropriate disciplinary actions in every instance where allegations were sustained. 

One of the most damning findings during the investigation was that a 32-year-old man had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old lifeguard under his supervision in 2021. Shortly after those allegations were reported, two additional female lifeguards reported that they also had been sexually assaulted by the same supervisor.

That man, Mauricio Ramirez, was charged in December with having sex with two underage lifeguards under his supervision; the inspector general’s report notes the charges but does not include his name. Ramirez resigned in October.

The inspector general also found that in 2016, a 16-year-old female lifeguard was sexually assaulted by an 18-year-old male lifeguard after he encouraged her to drink alcohol. He gave her a ride home and proceeded to sexually assault her while she was unconscious. 

The male lifeguard was suspended last year, then resigned, and has been placed on the “do not rehire” list.

The report also found in 2018 that a veteran male lifeguard sexually harassed and assaulted an underage female lifeguard, then made threats after the attack. This took place in 2018 after the male lifeguard drove the 17-year-old lifeguard home after work.

That male lifeguard refused to cooperate with the investigation and has resigned. He also has been placed on the “do not rehire” list, according to the new report.

The inspector general began investigating the allegations of misconduct in the aquatics department in March 2020.

Also on Wednesday, the Chicago Park District announced plans to create an Office of Prevention and Accountability, which will attempt to prevent misconduct and hold those harming others accountable through “fair, independent and thorough investigations.” 

“We are facing a critical moment at the Chicago Park District, and we must take this opportunity to do everything in our power to build a safer and more respectful work environment for all our employees and patrons,” Rosa Escareño, the park district’s interim superintendent, said in a statement. The goal, she said, is to “establish a strong workplace that protects the most important assets of the Chicago Park District – our employees and the patrons who place their trust in us every day.”

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