Sex misconduct allegations at CPS plummeted after schools closed, but abuse might not have, officials warn

Complaints of student abuse were up this year before the COVID-19 closures, then fell dramatically the past three months.

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A glass revolving door with lettering at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Chicago Public Schools headquarters

Sun-Times file

Sexual misconduct allegations at Chicago Public Schools plummeted this spring when buildings closed because of the coronavirus, and experts aren’t necessarily convinced it means abuse has dropped as significantly.

Fewer reports can be expected when 355,000 students are no longer in school every day, but that explanation might not paint the full picture, CPS Interim Inspector General Phil Wagenknecht said this week at the Board of Education’s virtual meeting.

“Our complaint numbers have declined during the past few months, and so there could be an element of that that is underreporting,” said Wagenknecht, whose office investigates allegations of student abuse by adults.

Complaints were up this year before the COVID-19 closures, then fell dramatically the past three months, Wagenknecht said. The inspector general’s office received 3.3 sexual misconduct allegations per school day from September through February, up from 2.7 per day last year. By April, reporting dropped to one case per day.

Board member Luisiana Melendez said school buildings being closed doesn’t mean that “some students that were vulnerable before don’t continue to be vulnerable.”

Asked by Melendez what was being done to identify and respond to abuse happening outside of school during the pandemic, Chief Title IX Officer Camie Pratt said the district is relying on teachers to recognize and report concerns.

“Our teachers know our students well, and so they may find that students aren’t showing up for [virtual] class and that may be a sign that something’s going on,” Pratt said.

Pratt’s department, the Office of Student Protections, which investigates instances of abuse by students of classmates or adults, has taken in almost 2,000 complaints this school year. Most have been sexual harassment and inappropriate touching. Almost 400 have involved sexual electronic communication — a type of abuse that has made up more than a third of complaints since schools closed, Pratt said.

Pratt said her office is reaching out to children who have been involved in cases the past year to check how they and their families are doing, Pratt said, because officials are “particularly concerned about those students.” Wagenknecht said his office is doing the same.

“We have concerns in that area that could pertain to abuse involving school personnel, but also just generally abuse that doesn’t involve people affiliated with CPS, possibly family members or other people in the home,” Wagenknecht said.

The vast majority of complaints this year have not involved sexual abuse or assault, as was the case last year, Wagenknecht said.

Of the 406 cases the inspector general’s office has opened since July, 231 have been classified as “creepy” or concerning behavior by an adult, such as staring or leering at a student. Another 58 have been inappropriate touching that didn’t rise to the level of sexual abuse, and 36 were considered “grooming,” where adults break down a student’s inhibitions for the purpose of sex.

Fewer than a third of the 266 cases closed since July have been substantiated, and those allegations found to be true mostly fell in the ”creepy” category, Wagenknecht said.

As of the end of April, 126 adults across the district — including 40 teachers — have been pulled from the job while allegations are investigated. Thirty-five adults were fired, resigned or retired since July, and 28 were reinstated because allegations against them were not substantiated.

Complaints against security guards, who were targets of a disproportionately high number of allegations last year, have dropped this year, Wagenknecht said.

Criminal charges of sexual abuse or assault have been brought against three teachers and a security guard this school year, and Chicago police are investigating another 20 cases involving CPS employees or vendor staff, the interim inspector general said.

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