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Whitney Young coach removed after misconduct accusations; school criticized for not taking action sooner

Students allege a gym teacher and cross country coach at the prestigious magnet school was inappropriate and “creepy” for years — but remained on the job.

Robert Geiger.
Sun-Times files

A physical education teacher who served for years as the girls cross country coach at Whitney Young Magnet High School has been placed on leave as officials investigate allegations of inappropriate conduct with students — some dating back more than a decade — that resurfaced last week after a scathing social media post by the teacher’s estranged daughter.

The coach, Robert Geiger, is in his 15th year at Whitney Young, one of Chicago Public Schools’ most competitive selective enrollment high schools on the Near West Side. Several recent graduates accused Geiger of sexually inappropriate comments and behavior toward girls at the school, and described a lack of urgency by Principal Joyce Kenner’s administration in addressing their concerns in the past.

Thirteen years after the first known complaint, Geiger was still in his position as a teacher until Thursday. Geiger has not been formally accused of or charged with a crime.

“The district takes all allegations of wrongdoing and inappropriate behavior very seriously,” CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement. “Upon learning of the allegations, the employee was removed from their position and the Inspector General began an investigation.”

Gherardi did not respond to questions about whether the district investigated past allegations against Geiger.

Kenner did not respond to phone calls or emailed questions. In an email to the school community, Kenner said she followed protocol by notifying district officials “as soon as” she heard of the allegations last week.

“Please know I do not have the power to remove any faculty or staff member without due process or a directive from the district,” Kenner wrote. “Our goal as a school is to always make sure students feel safe and protected.”

Reached by phone Thursday, Geiger said he was “familiar with what’s going on,” including his daughter’s social media posts, but denied any wrongdoing.

“The only thing I can say is the allegations are not true,” he said. “In my view, they’re exaggerated.”

Asked if he ever acted inappropriately with any underage girls, Geiger responded, “No.”

He said he was disappointed to be removed from his position and added: “I just, honestly, this is a bad situation, and I don’t want to make any further comments.”

Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner addresses graduates in June 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Complaints date back years

The school system has been highly sensitive about sexual misconduct allegations the past two years after a groundbreaking Chicago Tribune investigation found the district mishandled thousands of complaints of abuse by students and staff. The district set up an Office of Student Protections to examine complaints against students, and the inspector general’s office took over allegations involving adults.

In the new protocols, complaints of adult behavior can be classified as “creepy” or concerning in addition to assault, abuse and other misconduct. In previous years, those types of concerns were widely overlooked across the district.

Four recent Whitney Young graduates interviewed by the Sun-Times, all of whom asked not to be named out of fear of backlash, said Geiger for years made “creepy” sexual comments to teenage girls. Two of the alumni said Geiger made them feel uncomfortable by touching their bodies in the context of cross country or physical education class.

Three of the four young women said they made separate complaints about Geiger to Kenner in recent years, though it’s unclear if the principal knew of every specific concern.

One of the alumni, who ran on the cross country team, said the coach would sometimes help runners stretch before and after their meets — and at times his hands would end up in vulnerable places on girls’ bodies, such as their inner thighs and partially into their shorts. Other times he would inexplicably help girls zip their jackets and his fingers would run along their shorts at their waistline, she alleged, making girls feel “noticeably uncomfortable.”

On a team trip to Florida, Geiger slept in the same hotel suite as several girls on the team, the former runner said. The suite had a living room and two closed bedrooms, but he pushed for one or two of the girls to sleep in the living room with him, she said. The students instead slept three girls to a bed to avoid the living room.

Another former member of the cross country team said Geiger would often invite the girls over to his home after practices and meets, which she felt was inappropriate. She was also in his physical education class, and during a swimming lesson on diving he got “handsy” close to her chest, she said.

A third ex-runner said Geiger told her to lose weight if she wanted to improve her performance. She later developed an eating disorder, in part because of his comments, she said.

Another student who was in Geiger’s sexual education class her freshman year said he asked her about her virginity and when she was going to lose it, she said. He joked about her joining a convent because she was a virgin.

In all, a half-dozen former students interviewed by the Sun-Times said older girls would warn incoming freshmen about Geiger’s behavior.

“We didn’t really bother with Dr. Kenner again because every year different groups of girls would go [complain] and nothing would happen,” one of the former students said.

Geiger stepped down as head coach of the girls cross country team in 2017. He later became the boys coach, a post he currently holds, and has kept his $91,000-a-year teaching job.

Adam Sheppard, Geiger’s attorney, said he “has a stellar reputation with the school as both a coach and a teacher.”

Asked if his client had ever acted inappropriately with underage girls, Sheppard said “there’s no evidence of that at all” and that Geiger would fight each accusation “tooth and nail.”

“He has no history of wrongdoing,” Sheppard said. “He denies the allegations and looks forward to clearing his name.”

Sara Salgado revealed allegations of inappropriate sexual comments and behavior against her estranged father in a social media post this week.
Sara Salgado revealed allegations of inappropriate sexual comments and behavior against her estranged father in a social media post this week.
Fotografía de Mercedes Zapata

Coach’s daughter speaks out on Instagram

A petition demanding Kenner’s resignation reached almost 1,000 signatures last year after some students and alumni were displeased by her response to the summer’s racial justice protests. Around the same time, two students posted on social media about their experiences with adults at the school dismissing sexually inappropriate comments and behavior. The criticism eventually died down as the summer waned and the new remote school year began.

That was until Sara Salgado, Geiger’s estranged daughter, sent an email to Kenner last week calling him a “predator” and demanding an investigation along with his removal from the school.

In a widely circulated Instagram post, Salgado, 22, said Geiger “for as long as I can remember was frequently physically, verbally and emotionally abusive,” including “sexually violating” behavior since she was 11 years old. The extraordinary step by a family member was the talk of the school community all week and prompted several women to recall their experiences with Geiger as students.

Salgado didn’t attend Whitney Young, but she said in an interview that she felt a responsibility to shed light on his behavior. Salgado made clear her father never sexually assaulted her but made sexual comments about her body and exhibited inappropriate sexual behavior around her starting as a young teenager.

Sheppard, Geiger’s attorney, said the teacher was “surprised and disappointed” by his daughter’s allegations, claiming they stemmed from a “cantankerous divorce” with Geiger’s ex-wife, Salgado’s mother. That divorce has already been settled.

“I’m not doing this out of bitterness,” Salgado told the Sun-Times. “I told Dr. Kenner, I’m not emailing you as a vendetta against my father. I’m emailing you because this is an ethical violation.”

Salgado said the past year of quarantine has “leveled up” her trauma as she’s considered her childhood, and she had an epiphany this week that she needed to reveal what she knew about her father. Salgado said she’s now hopeful for her future without the burden of carrying this trauma on her own.

“I felt really touched that other girls reached out to me, too, and told me about their experiences with him,” Salgado said. “Seeing it now all come together of this general sense of creepiness that a lot of people feel towards him, it was validating. I hope it’s a wakeup call for the administration.”

Nia LeSueur and her mother complained to Principal Joyce Kenner in 2008 about sexually inappropriate comments by Robert Geiger.
Nia LeSueur and her mother complained to Principal Joyce Kenner in 2008 about sexually inappropriate comments by Robert Geiger.
Cortesía

Complaints from 2008 resurface

Nia LeSueur, a 2011 graduate of Whitney Young, raised concerns about Geiger 13 years ago when she was a ninth grader in his physical education class, home room and on his cross country team. LeSueur’s mother documented each of the allegations in an email to Kenner in May 2008, sent after a pair of meetings between the mother and principal. The Sun-Times viewed a copy of the email.

In January 2008, when LeSueur was 14, Geiger told students in her class he was going to give her a tiara because she was the “cleavage queen,” she alleged in the email. Geiger also told students to collect money to buy Nia turtleneck shirts to cover her chest because it was too distracting, she said.

In another incident, Geiger showed LeSueur a picture of a famous track and field star on his computer and told the teenager he thought she would “probably like it if 35-year-old men made [lewd] comments about pictures of her on the internet,” like they did about that track athlete, she alleged.

LeSueur and one of her friends were brought into one of the meetings with Kenner — at which Geiger was present — to detail his comments. LeSueur’s mother, Micki LeSueur, said Kenner was dismissive of their concerns, and Geiger initially denied making those comments before explaining that “his relationship with Nia was such that his comments were acceptable.”

In the end, Nia LeSueur quit the cross country team and was moved out of Geiger’s gym and home room classes at her request, though her mother’s email at the time noted the switch meant her daughter was “removing herself from established friendships with three weeks left in the school year.” Students also started calling her “cleavage queen.” The family was unaware if Kenner took any further action.

“I was really angry and hopeless, because what do you do at that point? It messes with your head, it makes you think, ‘OK, maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal,’” Nia LeSueur, now 28, said in an interview last week.

“It’s completely infuriating,” she said. “It makes me so angry at him, but honestly I’m angrier at the administration because he’s been enabled for so long, and what happened to any girl after me was completely preventable.”

Nia LeSueur emailed Kenner again last week to criticize the principal for Geiger’s continued presence at the school and demand her resignation. In copies of the conversation viewed by the Sun-Times, Kenner responded with an apology, although she acknowledged she purposefully did not respond to an email from her last year.

“I sincerely apologize if I failed you,” Kenner wrote. “Over the years I have tried to do the best I could with all of the situations I have had to deal with. I hope one day you will see that I tried to be the best principal I could for all students including you.

“I won’t keep going back and forth with you, however I want you to know from the inside of my heart I never meant to hurt you or put you in harm’s way. I would have never done that to a student. I have made some mistakes in my tenure as principal and definitely this is one of them. If any student felt I did not protect them, then I failed at my job. Again, I am sorry for all of this. I hope one day you can forgive me.”

Whitney Young High School, 211 S. Laflin.
Jean Lachat/Sun-Times