Hundreds of Sexual Violence Complaints Pour Into New Chicago Public Schools Title IX Office

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A new Chicago Public Schools office created to investigate cases of student-on-student sexual violence has fielded more than 600 allegations so far this school year, district officials testified Wednesday to the City Council’s education committee.

That shocking figure came as top CPS officials—though not the district’s chief executive—defended and reviewed the district’s response to sexual abuse allegations after the Chicago Tribune exposed broad failures in an investigation this year. CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel privately earlier in the day, the mayor’s spokesman said, but did not attend the committee hearing.

District deputy general counsel Douglas Henning, chief security officer Jadine Chou, and other staffers instead summarized for aldermen the district’s changes to background check procedures, policies on abuse reporting and the sexual grooming of students, and the creation of a new Office of Student Protections and Title IX. The office is devoted to investigating student-on-student assault, supporting student victims, and training staff on their child-protection duties.

The large number of reports and calls handled by the new office reflects what Henning described as a “new reality.”

“We’re in a world now where it’s not OK to look the other way on any of this,” Henning said. “We’re in a world now where if you see something that makes you uncomfortable, that you think is wrong, you absolutely have to report that. … The culture is changing.”

Most of the 624 misconduct cases that came in to the Title IX office between Sept. 4 and Monday involved student-on-student allegations, the primary responsibility of the office. But 133 cases related to allegations of misconduct by adults, with roughly half of those adult-related misconduct cases involving people who do not work for CPS, Henning told the committee.

The Title IX office must forward adult-related complaints sent through its hotline to CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler, whose office has taken over the responsibility of investigating allegations that adults engaged in misconduct with students.

Henning said he could not offer more information about investigations into the allegations, including how many have been launched or completed. It was not clear how many of the allegations related to incidents from this school year.

Schuler also testified Wednesday about his efforts to take a new look at prior abuse cases recorded by CPS over the years. He said his office has tallied approximately 1,000 investigations related to allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse that occurred in the district dating to 2000.

School officials have identified 18 old cases that warrant further investigation, and the IG’s office is negotiating a contract to hire an investigative firm founded by former FBI Director Louis Freeh to conduct that work, Schuler said. The IG office also will need outside help to continue examining the much larger number of old cases, he said.

Wednesday’s three-hour hearing occurred days after the Tribune reported CPS had parted ways with hundreds of workers, vendors, and volunteers following an effort to run new background checks on tens of thousands of people.

That effort was inspired by the Tribune’s “Betrayed” investigation, which revealed widespread failures in the district’s response to reports of sexual abuse and misconduct involving its students. The reporting showed police had investigated more than 500 reports of child sexual abuse or assault inside city public schools between 2008 and 2017.

The Wednesday hearing wasn’t connected to any legislative effort from the City Council. A measure put forth in September by Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, to outlaw personal communications between staff and students in any city public or private elementary and high school is idling in a different committee.

The education committee chairman, Emanuel ally and 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins Jr., told the Tribune last week that members who have demanded a hearing were simply “looking to score political points against the mayor.” The public schools operate separately from the city but are led by mayoral appointees.

“This is too serious a subject to be kicking somebody for political gain, because serious efforts to fix this could be looked at with skepticism,” Brookins said.

Some CPS administrators who testified Wednesday had been questioned by lawmakers before. In late June, outraged state legislators convened a hearing and verbally pummeled the district for failing to protect and support students from abuse and assault at school. Jackson didn’t attend that session, either.

“I’m a little disappointed that Janice is not here,” said 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, an educator and Chicago Teachers Union member who repeated the labor group’s calls for more resources in schools during Wednesday’s hearing. “This Office of Student Protections? Their schools should be the office of student protections. Your school should protect you. When you walk in that building, your school should protect you. You should have a counselor, full time. Social worker, full time.”

The state legislature is expected to take up the abuse issue early next year. Several bills that would address weaknesses in child protection have been introduced, and the Illinois State Board of Education has weighed in to request more power to suspend an accused educator’s license temporarily.

On Tuesday, Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker described the scandal surrounding the district’s response to sexual misconduct as “a terrible crisis” but did not commit his support to potential reforms pitched so far by state lawmakers.

“Well, I haven’t looked at all of the legislation that’s been introduced around this. It’s obviously an enormous challenge that we’re going to have to meet,” Pritzker said Tuesday.

“It’s a terrible crisis that occurred, and so we’re going to look seriously at it and we’re not going to overlook making sure that children are safe when they go to school and that parents are confident in that safety.”

The district is also under intense federal scrutiny, as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights continues to investigate four complaints of sexual violence or harassment in CPS schools. Three of those complaints involve student-on-student sexual assault and allege that schools did not adequately investigate student victims’ reports, support them in their education, and protect them from peer harassment after coming forward.

One of those cases dates to 2016, when a sophomore at Clemente Community Academy told the school’s dean and police that she was punched in the face, forced into an abandoned building by a group of boys—some of whom she recognized from school—and forced to perform oral sex on some of them after school, just off campus.

In August and September, the federal civil rights office launched investigations involving incidents at Ogden International School and Brennemann Elementary. Both complaints allege school staff didn’t do enough to protect the students from peer harassment after the incidents were reported.

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The Brennemann case stems from a January incident in which one student approached another from behind and pumped his pelvis against the student’s behind, according to school incident reports obtained by the Tribune. Federal and district records show the Ogden case involves a student’s report that another student touched her sexually under her clothes and then took her hand and made her touch his crotch.

The fourth case involves a 2015 complaint by a Prosser Career Academy sophomore, who alleged that her teacher got her drunk on sangria and then sexually abused her in his car. The district paid the girl $780,000 in a civil case, and the teacher pleaded guilty this month to a criminal charge of sexual exploitation of a child.

In September, federal education officials took the rare step of withholding $4 million in federal grant money from CPS, citing the district’s failure to provide records on reports of sexual violence against students. CPS can restart the flow of grant money next year only if it can show civil-rights compliance.

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