The Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general said Wednesday his office should take over investigations into allegations of sexual abuse to end a potential conflict of interest for CPS administrators.
Inspector General Nicholas Schuler is asking to end the practice of CPS’ legal department handling both the questioning of students who present accusations of abuse at school and then defending the school system against lawsuits filed by those students.
“The change is necessary to ensure independent investigations of sex-crime allegations at CPS and eliminate conflict-of-interest problems,” Schuler said in his letter to Chicago Board of Education president Frank Clark.
“The CPS law department simply cannot get to the bottom of all sexual misconduct allegations against CPS employees while simultaneously having the job of defending CPS against lawsuits by the victims of those very same crimes. That morass of competing interests makes it impossible to tell whether the law department is working for student victims or trying to limit the district’s legal exposure.”
Schuler said the change would put CPS in line with other school districts like New York. It would require more staff that currently work under the IG’s direction, he said, but could be done without major cost by transferring positions or even employees from CPS’ legal department’s team of investigators.
The request from the schools’ in-house watchdog follows Chicago Tribune reports that CPS failed to protect students from sexual abuse and harassment at school. The stories prompted a rare apology from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s facing a crowd of challengers for reelection.
Asked whether she’d commit to Schuler’s proposal right now, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said, “the answer is ‘no.’
“The last thing we need is more confusion with competing recommendations and demands,” she said by telephone Wednesday. She also dismissed suggestions to set up an abuse hotline, saying one already exists with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Jackson pointed again to steps CPS is taking regarding abuse, including asking former Assistant U.S. Attorney Maggie Hickey to evaluate CPS procedure and policies regarding student reports. Hickey’s credentials, which include a stint as a state inspector general, are “impeccable,” Jackson said.
Hickey will be “looking at processes and practices,” interviewing heads of the legal, HR and safety departments. She’s to report back to CPS if she finds anyone who’s broken the law, but has not been dispatched to clean house.
Jackson wouldn’t speculate whether that questioning would spark more lawsuits from CPS families.
“In cases where CPS has acted or failed to act, we expect people to do whatever’s within their power to seek redress on that,” she said. “You’re not going to hear from me any discouragement on that part.”
After apologizing to students and parents earlier this week, Emanuel wouldn’t say whether he’d support an investigation of sexual abuse against students that’s independent of CPS. Like Jackson, he pointed to the contract CPS has signed with Hickey’s firm, Schiff Hardin, paying as much as $500,000. CPS has not yet made that contract available.
Mayoral challenger Lori Lightfoot has demanded Emanuel order an independent investigation and require CPS to “enter into a protocol with the state’s attorney to develop best practices standards for interviewing kids and conducting investigations” into sexual assault and abuse of CPS students.
Lightfoot also demanded that Emanuel direct CPS to open a “confidential hotline staffed by non-CPS personnel” so students, teachers and staff “can safely report allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct.”
Mayoral challenger Dorothy Brown joined in the call Wednesday for a truly independent investigation.
“As a parent, what I know is that the strongest measures in the world should be in place to protect our children. As a lawyer and CPA, what I know for sure is that there must always be checks and balances in place, and that the individuals investigating this case must be independent,” Brown was quoted as saying in a statement.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, said he has asked CPS to hold a series of closed-door aldermanic briefings on the scandal.
Only then will aldermen know whether to get behind an investigation totally independent of CPS or whether to trust the internal investigation being conducted by Hickey, Brookins said.
“These are serious allegations involving children. All of us need to know what happened and what they’re gonna do about it,” Brookins said.
Normally, a CPS scandal would trigger Education Committee hearings. But this is a different kind of scandal, Brookins said: “I don’t know that the children who are the victims would come forward in an open hearing.”