Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday apologized to Chicago Public School students harmed by teachers, coaches and staff members and vowed to “fix” the systemic breakdown that let it happen.

He offered his apology — a rare act by Emanuel — as sexual violence against CPS students has emerged as a potentially explosive issue in the crowded 2019 race for mayor after the Chicago Tribune published an investigation that found the system “failed repeatedly to protect students” in more than 100 cases over the last several years.

“All adults offer apology. I offer my apology. But the question is, what are we gonna do now besides words? What are the deeds to fix this up?” Emanuel said.

“I take responsibility. … I’m accountable for me,” he said. But Emanuel was quick to note that the sexual violence uncovered in Tribune reporting “goes back 10 years” and probably “way back” further than that.

“That doesn’t excuse what happened here. … All of us –– from principal to teacher to colleagues to the CEO, the bureaucracy, the mayor — we’re all responsible. We’re also then therefore … responsible for fixing it. From hiring to investigating to prosecuting and making sure that nobody ever is hired again anywhere — not just in CPS. All of that has to be tightened up,” he said.

His words were not enough to satisfy mayoral challenger Lori Lightfoot.

Lightfoot convened a news conference outside Walter Payton College Prep, a top-rated selective high school often praised by Emanuel as among the state’s best, and home to one of the alleged victims.

There, she argued that parents should have been notified five months ago, when the Tribune filed its first Freedom of Information requests, setting off “alarm bells” at City Hall.

“By at least January of this year, Rahm Emanuel and leadership at CPS were on notice that there was a significant problem. Did they notify parents, ensure that predators were separated from CPS and law enforcement was brought in to address this criminal conduct? Did the mayor direct CPS to provide a safe and confidential means for kids and their parents to report this gross abuse? The answer was no,” Lightfoot said.

“A raging forest fire was burning and still the mayor and CPS leadership took no definitive action. What have they been doing these last five months? How many more kids have been harmed?”

Lightfoot charged that Emanuel’s handling of the latest in a steady string of CPS scandals “follows a classic pattern” that Chicagoans have seen repeatedly over the last seven years.

“Wait until the crisis blows up. Make somebody else bear the responsibility for it and try to change the subject,” she said. “The mayor of Chicago can’t be AWOL in a crisis. The mayor of Chicago’s got to step up and lead — even when there are challenges.”

Of the 500 Chicago Police reports of sexual assault or abuse of students inside CPS schools, the Tribune found the system “failed repeatedly to protect students” in more than 100 of those cases.

Teachers and principals failed to alert police or DCFS, as required by law, even after students dared to disclose the abuse. Victims who came forward were forced to endure “repeated interrogations,” even in instances when school employees “acted swiftly,” the newspaper said.

The detailed investigation also blamed ineffective background checks for exposing students to teachers and coaches with criminal convictions and arrests for sex crimes against children.

And CPS compounded the problem by failing to alert school districts outside of Chicago to information about former employees who had resigned amid credible evidence of abuse and harassment against students.

The Chicago Teachers Union demanded an independent task force to improve CPS policies that would better protect children, as well as the hiring of more school social workers and counselors to help abused students. Jesse Sharkey, the union’s vice president, also renewed calls for an elected school board to oversee the school district.

“As long as the public face of our schools is linked to a mayor’s political fortunes, CPS remains vulnerable to practices driven by political expediency rather than by what is right and best for our students,” Sharkey said. “That must end.”

Schools CEO Janice Jackson has detailed a series of changes CPS has made, including a $500,000 contact to the law firm of Schiff Hardin LLP and its partner Maggie Hickey, a former state inspector general, to review “all practices, policies, and procedures for addressing instances of alleged sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse.”

Sexual violence

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson holds a press conference on sexual violence in the district, at CPS headquarters, on Tuesday June 5, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In a hastily called press conference Tuesday afternoon, her eyes bloodshot, Jackson said she’ll release Hickey’s preliminary recommendations from a “top to bottom analysis” in August before children return to school.

“At the end of the day we’re going to make clear what those recommendations are, we’re going to make them public so the public can inspect them and hold us accountable,” said Jackson, whose children attend CPS schools. “And I think that’s the first step and the most important step in order to restore public trust around this issue.”

Jackson called the political response to the scandal “extremely grotesque.”

“This is about protecting children. I’ve said clearly that the accountability starts with me,” she continued. “So anybody who tries to politicize this, I have no time for that. I don’t think any of the victims in this case care who’s running for office, all they care about is that the people who hurt them are held accountable and that this doesn’t happen to anyone else again.”

That didn’t stop mayoral challengers from weighing in.

Troy LaRaviere said failure to protect kids from such violence is the “kind of thing you get when you disinvest from an entire school district.”

The fired Blaine Elementary school principal now serving as president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association was referring to the waves of devastating staff cuts at neighborhood schools ordered by a string of CEOs appointed by Emanuel.

“When you under-staff a school district the way this mayor has, important things fall through the cracks. You simply don’t have enough people to do it because you haven’t invested in those people. You haven’t invested in the students those people are supposed to serve,” LaRaviere said. “One of the things that fell through the cracks is the district’s capacity to meet its obligation to keep these students safe and protect them from these dangers.”

LaRaviere likened the scandal to Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

“Whether they saw the video or not [before the 2015 mayoral election], they knew what happened to that boy a year before we knew. But they weren’t outraged when they found out. They got outraged when we found out,” LaRaviere said. “It’s the same with this sexual abuse case. They’ve known about this for years. But they weren’t outraged. They’re only outraged now that you know.”

Fired Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy called the sexual assault of CPS students “despicable and unforgivable.”

“The only thing we hear from the current mayor are apologies. Parents don’t need apologies for these deplorable acts. They and their children need accountability. How many more scandals do we need? How much more mismanagement?” McCarthy was quoted as saying in a statement.

“And how many more excuses are we going to hear from this mayor and his administration? I encourage parents to demand honest answers from Mayor Emanuel. If he is capable of giving an honest answer.”

Not to be outdone, former Schools CEO Paul Vallas said the sexual violence is evidence that “CPS needs a public safety transformation.”