CPS puts up vigorous court fight over disabled student’s claim he was sexually assaulted in 2016
In legal filings, officials have attacked the student’s testimony as “self-serving” and cast doubts as to whether an assault even occurred. The district has probed whether the incident was consensual and if the student’s parents had told him it was bad to be gay.
Three years after findings of widespread mishandling of sexual abuse rocked the school district and prompted a federal investigation, Chicago Public Schools attorneys are in court aggressively fighting a special education student who reported being raped, asking a judge to rule in its favor in a lawsuit ahead of a trial later this month.
In court filings as recent as mid-January, officials have attacked the student’s testimony as “self-serving” and cast doubts as to whether an assault, allegedly committed by a classmate in a school bathroom, had even occurred. The district has probed whether the incident was consensual and if the student’s parents had told him it was bad to be gay.
The 2017 complaint against the Board of Education, filed on behalf of a student and his parents who chose to be unnamed to protect their privacy, centers on a reported 2016 sexual assault in a bathroom at Bogan Computer Technical High School on the Southwest Side. The details of the case were first reported in the Chicago Tribune’s “Betrayed” series that uncovered system-wide predatory behavior in Chicago schools.
The case is in court Tuesday at the Daley Center for arguments on the district’s request for Judge Lorna Propes to grant summary judgement ahead of a Feb. 17 trial.
“We were expecting it to be over a lot sooner than this. It’s been a long time,” said the student’s mother, speaking to the Sun-Times on the condition she and her son not be identified.
“They dropped the ball. And now they’re trying to blame him because they can’t just acknowledge that they did this, and this happened under their watch.”
The Board of Education has denied fault in its court filings and argued the family’s attorney has failed to make a case but rather relied on “provocative rhetoric, unsupported arguments, conflated facts, and speculative conclusions to sway attention from the laws.”
The two boys, both with intellectual disabilities, were 15 at the time of the incident. One was much larger than the other and had a documented history of verbal, physical and sexual aggression — a year and a half earlier, at his elementary school, the larger boy was found in a bathroom stall behind another boy who was bent over with his pants down. That was one of at least 27 student code of conduct violations in his file, according to the lawsuit, which said school workers determined the incident happened in part because the student didn’t have an aide.
In the early 2016 incident, the two boys were unsupervised in a Bogan bathroom when the burlier student took his peer into a stall and sexually assaulted him, the lawsuit said. The same happened once more that spring.
At the core of the complaint against the school district is that both students’ Individualized Education Plans — documents that lay out federally mandated services based on each special education student’s unique needs — called for full-time supervision by a teacher or aide. The smaller student, whose disability prevents him from recognizing dangerous situations, testified he was regularly allowed to walk to the bathroom without an aide.
The district has disputed that claim, calling his testimony “self-serving” because officials found no evidence to definitively say he went to the bathroom without an aide.
“It’s sick,” his mother said of the district’s characterization. “He wants to not remember any of it. … He doesn’t even know what self-serving means.”
The assault “took a lot of his trust away from him, he’s more nervous,” she said. “It took a lot of his good qualities.”
In addition to putting in-house attorney Mara Warman on the case, CPS has hired private attorney Elizabeth Grover of the Nielsen, Zehe & Antas firm, a move typically made when the district plans to aggressively defend itself in court.
In early 2019, a judge barred CPS attorneys from asking the student about his sexual history. But they went on to ask if he thought it was bad to be gay, and if anyone such as his parents had told him so, according to his family’s lawyer.
“They’re trying to make it all on him,” the student’s mother said, adding she never did or would tell her son it would be a problem if he was gay. “No regard at all he’s sitting right here and you’re saying all this, and we’re sitting here and you’re saying this, to make us feel like we did something wrong. It was just terrible and it was just disgusting to have to sit there through all that.
“They were jumping around to different reasons without just acknowledging, ‘We weren’t watching him.’”
CPS doesn’t acknowledge attack took place
In its filings, CPS has not acknowledged an assault occurred. Even if there was an attack, the district has argued its employees didn’t cause any injuries and didn’t fail to enforce any laws, writing “CPS did not owe plaintiffs a duty to guard against unforeseen third-party criminal attacks.” Most central to its defense is its claim that there is no proof, other than the boy’s testimony, that aides didn’t supervise the two students. CPS also argued the school didn’t have a duty to supervise the kids inside the bathroom.
The district has asked the judge to grant its request for summary judgement for those reasons, also citing the Tort Immunity Act, which protects public bodies from certain lawsuits — though not from injuries on government property when public employees were reckless.
“Publicly, the Board of Education in the news and to the general public has said that they are trying to right prior wrongs and that they are trying to support victims,” said the family’s attorney, Carolyn Daley. “At the same time, in the court system, the Board of Education routinely hires outside counsel to come in and litigate these cases and defend these cases harder than ever.”
Daley, who also serves as the president of Special Olympics Chicago, is representing another student’s family in a nearly identical case: Another boy in Bogan’s special education program reported being raped in February 2017 in a school bathroom by the same classmate who allegedly assaulted the student in this case. In the eight months before the second boy was attacked, school administrators made no changes to protect peers from the aggressive student, the lawsuit alleges.
In the case that’s in court this month, Daley said the boy gave consistent details in interviews with school workers, child advocates and Chicago police detectives who were investigating the case, yet the district doesn’t believe him.
One of those interviews was with Bogan Principal Alahrie Aziz-Sims the day after he reported the assault. In a meeting with his parents and a couple other administrators, the principal directed the student to stand up and demonstrate how the attack happened and asked whether it hurt, the lawsuit said.
Aziz-Sims is still the principal at Bogan. The student’s mother said it “makes me sick” every time she drives past the school and sees the principal’s name on a sign outside the building. “Just to think she’s still there and going along like nothing happened. She shouldn’t be there,” the mother said.
CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus declined to answer questions, citing pending litigation. Aziz-Sims also didn’t comment for the same reason. It’s unclear whether Aziz-Sims ever faced discipline or received additional training.
Daley said CPS has not made a “good faith effort” to settle the lawsuit, offering in early 2020 to pay well below the family’s monetary demand.
The lawsuit claimed police found evidence sufficient to charge the other student with a crime, but the parents of the boy who reported the attack declined to press charges because they felt the other student needed support, not incarceration. Chicago police records show the case was investigated but an arrest was not made.
“I know that he’s the one who did it, but I don’t think he knew any better,” the mother said. “We didn’t want to see him in jail. We wanted to see him get help. He’s in the same boat with [my son]. And [the district is] there to supposedly support them and watch them. … They’re the bad guy.”