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CPS knew about sex misconduct claims at school but promoted principal anyway, records show

Marine Leadership Academy principal Erin Galfer was promoted to a high-level role within the district, but has since been fired after CPS said she failed to report sex misconduct allegations at the school. She denies that and says it was CPS officials that didn’t take the claims seriously.

Marine Leadership Academy, 1920 N. Hamlin Ave.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools attorneys and leaders long had knowledge of an investigation into sexual misconduct and failure to report it by the principal at Marine Leadership Academy, despite claiming otherwise Friday, information obtained by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times shows.

And, in the two years the investigation went on, CPS not only kept the principal on staff but also promoted her.

The school district has fired 10 employees as a result of the inspector general’s investigation. Some of the staff are accused of grooming students or having inappropriate relationships with three separate students. The school district says the others knew about these situations and failed to report them.

One of those terminated was the school’s former principal, Erin Galfer. Her firing Nov. 6 for failure to report came just months after she was promoted to a high-level role within the district’s college and career success office. She had been principal since 2015 of Marine Leadership Academy in Logan Square on the near Northwest Side.

“The behavior uncovered by this investigation represents a stunning betrayal of trust and colossal failure of judgement and character on the part of far too many individuals,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.

Erin Galfer
CPS Summer Leadership Institute

Galfer has denied that she failed to report sexual misconduct and said it was CPS officials, not her, who failed to take the sexual misconduct seriously. Galfer’s lawyer issued a statement late Friday saying “the tragic failure at Marine falls at the feet of CPS who long knew about the misconduct and did not take timely steps to protect the students.” The statement did not say what more Galfer though district leadership should have done, but said she would fight her firing and defend her reputation.

Will Fletcher, the district’s inspector general, said his office alerted CPS in April of 2019 about three allegations and listed the principal as one of those accused of knowing about, but not reporting, some of these situations. The allegations were from an anonymous source.

The inspector general’s office quoted a note it shared internally with CPS, saying, “FYI, This is the third sexual complaint that we have received this week from Marine,” according to the public summary of the investigation posted Friday.

And the inspector general’s office insisted it continued to keep CPS in the loop as time went on to help inform decisions about which employees needed to be removed.

CPS said in a statement that, during the two-year investigation, it “took immediate action to remove employees when it was clear that they posed a risk to student and/or staff safety, health and wellbeing.”

That did not include the principal.

None of the former leadership of CPS responded to questions about the investigation at Marine Military Academy. Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney, who previously led the equity office, said Galfer’s promotion was in the works before he moved positions in June.

On Friday, Martinez said the district didn’t know the extent of the investigation until the inspector general’s office briefed officials in late October. And CPS followed up to state the principal was fired once the district learned in that briefing that she was “part of the ongoing comprehensive OIG Investigation that yielded substantiated findings regarding the school culture.”

However, in the same statement, school district officials acknowledged that “CPS” knew far earlier. They said CPS was informed in April 2019 by the inspector general “that several employees, including the former principal, were alleged to have failed to report an abuse case.” The statement was in response to questions about the legal department’s knowledge and involvement. But the statement referred to “CPS” without specifying who at the district knew and why that information was not taken into consideration when the principal was promoted.

That lag in time before the investigation was complete and final action taken — more than two years — prompted outcry from staff at the school, who felt their concerns were being ignored. Martinez said he wants to address those worries in the future.

Under his administration, he said staff who fail to report a case of abuse or neglect will be removed, not only the perpetrators. And before someone is transferred or promoted, officials will check if they are under investigation.

Martinez said on Friday future investigations should be completed much faster. He said the inspector general’s office had a backlog, but with fewer cases coming in during the pandemic, they have been able to clear it. And the school district added six more staffers this year to the inspector general’s office.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez speaks during a press conference Friday, where officials discussed multiple sexual misconduct investigations at Marine Leadership Academy.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

What happened at Marine Leadership Academy?

The inspector general’s report released Friday provided details about what occurred at the school. Two teachers had substantiated claims against them: one for having sex with a student in 2015-16, and another for grooming a student and making sexual advances after graduation. In one of those cases, the investigation uncovered texts from a teacher to a student saying, “I can’t wait until you turn 18,” officials said.

The inspector general also substantiated allegations against three military instructors, two for inappropriate interactions, such as personal conversations and text messaging, and another for sexual harassment. In 2013, the school went from being a neighborhood middle school to a military academy for middle and high schoolers — a move that some community members and parents fought against.

Galfer and a security guard were taken to task for knowing about the sexual relationships between the teachers and the students but not reporting them, according to the report. In one case, Galfer only reported the abuse 15 minutes after a child welfare investigator visited the school, the IG said.

The inspector general also found two other teachers and a security guard knew about these relationships and did not alert anyone. The results of two additional investigations by the watchdog will be released in the coming weeks.

But even before those allegations were made public late last week, there was evidence Galfer was not being vigilant with background checks or removing staff accused of harming students. In 2017, a report written by a CPS attorney said the district determined Galfer failed to report a student had a nude photo of a staff member and lied about knowing the picture existed, according to documents obtained by the Sun-Times and WBEZ. Galfer was also cited in 2015 for failing to report a picture that included a staff member holding a beer.

Another investigative memo completed in spring 2018 found that Galfer allowed a volunteer to coach a sports team without verifying he completed a background check and, even after he was accused of sexual misconduct, did not stop him from volunteering at the school. Investigators did not find evidence of sexual misconduct on the part of the coach.

Neither of those cases appeared to be among those later investigated by the inspector general. The CPS Law Department used to handle those types of cases before the inspector general took over all adult-on-student sexual misconduct investigations. That change happened in 2019 in the aftermath of a Chicago Tribune series detailing the district’s widespread mishandling of cases. In response, then-CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she was “sick to her stomach.” She promised a review of practices and past cases.

It was unclear if Galfer was ever reprimanded in those two cases, and the CPS Law Department failed to release information about this investigations in response to a 2020 WBEZ public records request for Galfer’s personnel file.

At the time, attorneys said part of the reason they weren’t releasing Galfer’s personnel file was “portions of the requested records that have been determined to be factual information inextricably intertwined with an ongoing investigation or disciplinary proceeding.” On Friday, CPS indicated that investigation had nothing to do with the sexual misconduct probe. Instead, they released an investigative report into Galfer for pressuring a military officer working in the school to resign rather than fire him properly in an unrelated case. She was suspended for a day, which she argued in a letter was unfair.

Galfer also feels she is being treated unfairly now. Galfer’s attorney, Jonathan Karmel, said CPS “falsely stated that our client ... failed to report the sexual misconduct” at Marine Leadership Academy.

“Notwithstanding Mr. Martinez’s attempt to create a false narrative, the tragic failure at Marine falls directly at the feet of CPS who long knew about the misconduct and did not take timely steps to protect the students,” Karmel said in a statement.

“Instead, Erin was wrongly terminated and looks forward to restoring her reputation and, more importantly, holding CPS responsible for its endemic failures to protect CPS students.”

Martinez told reporters Friday at a press conference that preempted the inspector general’s report that there was a “culture of behavior and distrust that occurred at Marine Leadership Academy that is not tolerated by our district.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ Chicago. Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.