Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark, from left, Vice President Jaime Guzman and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson leave a news conference addressing strengthening of sexual abuse investigations on June 12, 2018. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Investigations into allegations that Chicago school employees sexually abused students should be conducted by the district’s independent watchdog, the school board president said Tuesday as officials try to manage the fallout from an ongoing abuse scandal.
Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark said he will propose that district Inspector General Nicholas Schuler’s office take over responsibility for sexual abuse investigations. Clark’s plan also would “require monthly reporting to the board,” including the number of claims under investigation, some details about the schools and employees involved, the nature of the allegations and the employment status of the involved school worker.
The change would require a board vote that is scheduled for later this month.
School sexual abuse investigations currently are managed within the district’s Law Department, which also defends the district if abused students file lawsuits. Child welfare experts say it is a conflict of interest for the department to both question students and represent the district’s interests in court.
“I, like most of you, have been disappointed and outraged,” Clark said of his reaction to the Tribune’s “Betrayed” investigation, which found widespread shortfalls in the district’s response to sexual abuse allegations. “Schools must be a sanctuary for students. But as we now know, this was not the case for some.
“Nothing is more important than creating a safer school district for our students, and we will not rest until that work is complete,” Clark said.
In a letter to Schuler, Clark also wrote that the IG’s office has been directed to review older sexual abuse investigations conducted by the Law Department dating “back to at least 2000, and further as warranted by your office, to determine if additional actions are required and appropriate corrective action was taken.”
Board Vice President Jaime Guzman and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jacksonstood by Clark as he spoke at CPS headquarters.
State and local lawmakers on Tuesday also solidified plans to hold the district accountable for changes that would help protect youths.
Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said she is calling a legislative hearing to take place June 20 in Chicago “to close any loopholes that might exist” in CPS’ handling of sexual abuse and assault cases. She told the Tribune she is interested in hearing any new legislative proposals that could help keep students safe.
But Collins also said she wants answers. For example, she said she wants to know why CPS employees failed again and again to follow the state’s long-standing mandated reporter law, which requires them to report any allegation of sexual abuse to state child welfare investigators immediately.
“I want to find out who is responsible for dropping the ball. They need to be held accountable,” she said.
Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Streamwood, who is chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, said his staff is working to finalize a list of people to provide testimony at the hearing. In addition to CPS CEO Jackson, Crespo said he wants representatives from the Department of Children and Family Services, the Chicago Police Department and City Hall to appear.
“I would like to have someone from the mayor’s office. In the end, it starts and ends with Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” Crespo said.
Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said legislators are listening and prepared to make changes to state law.
“We will use the information to develop clear protocols for reporting, background checks and legislative solutions for all school districts to ensure our students are protected,” Bertino-Tarrant said in an email to the Tribune.
Other state lawmakers said they are finalizing draft language of a bill that will be introduced by Thursday. Drafted by Barrington Hills Republican Rep. David McSweeney and DuPage County Democratic Sen. Tom Cullerton, it outlines more than a dozen changes to state law in response to the child protection shortfalls highlighted in the Tribune investigation. Among the measures, the bill would swiftly revoke the licenses of educators found by districts to have sexually abused children and would make such disciplinary action more transparent to the public.
For now, McSweeney said, “the most important thing is to get a good, solid bill filed that can be used as a base if other things need to be added.”
Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said she will be a chief co-sponsor but added that she would not be surprised if additional bills are introduced because CPS has so many problems in its handling of student sexual abuse cases.
“There are so many violations,” Flowers said. “David (McSweeney) said this is just the beginning, and he is absolutely right.”
One part of the proposed legislation is “non-negotiable,” Cullerton said: the provision that would make it a crime for a school employee to have sexual contact with a student regardless of the student’s age. Under current law, sex with a student is legal if he or she is older than 17 and no force is involved.
“The goal is to make that in immediate effect once the bill passes,” Cullerton said.
The city’s aldermen also plan to meet with Jackson on Thursday in groups of up to 15, said City Council Education Committee Chairman Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st.
“I want to drill down on what the problems and breakdowns are … and what we need to do to fix it,” Brookins said.
He said he sees a clear need to change state law to criminalize sex between a CPS employee and student regardless of the age of the student. “There is something unseemly with a teacher having a relationship with a high school student,” the alderman said.
He also said it was unacceptable that CPS currently cannot share information with other school districts about a teacher accused of sexual misconduct if the alleged misconduct occurred more than four years prior.
“How does that happen?” asked Brookins, specifically referring to a case highlighted by the Tribune in which teacher Stephen Stapanian got hired in Florida after resigning his Chicago job during a misconduct investigation. “We are looking at things like that to figure out what the best practices are and are there changes in state law that are appropriate.”
At Tuesday’s news conference at CPS headquarters, the district’s inspector general did not appear. But Schuler had written to school officials last week suggesting that his office take over the district’s sexual abuse investigations.
“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 victims of those very same crimes,” Schuler wrote.
In an interview Tuesday, Schuler said either of the district’s new requests — the in-depth review of old cases and taking on all new allegations — would require an infusion of personnel and other resources.
“We don’t have the ability to do this right now, and I’ve made it clear that to tackle this will shut down our current operation, which is not appropriate,” he said. “It’s all going to come down to the resources.”
Still, Schuler said he now envisions his office will take on a full look at the district’s potential wrongdoing.
“We’ll be looking at how we got here, and if there’s wrongdoing that’s uncovered — and especially if any people are still at CPS — then we want to identify them and have them disciplined or terminated if appropriate,” Schuler said. “If people were turning a blind eye to this, that would warrant discipline.”
A prominent advocate for victims of school sexual abuse said the office’s request for more resources is a sign that the inspector general might not be equipped to handle the sensitive work of interviewing students who may have been abused.
“I don’t know if inspector general offices have child advocates, I don’t know if they have trained child sexual abuse investigators that are going to sensitively interview children. And I don’t know if they’re going to provide all the services that children receive through child protective services when they are a victim of crime,” said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. “That concerns me, that they’re going to turn this over to someone who it doesn’t feel like they have the resources to do it.”
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said interviewing children who have been abused takes special skill. The association represents and trains school-based police officers.
“It takes a very skilled investigator to conduct those types of interviews. Those are not for just anybody, even in the law enforcement world, to conduct those types of interviews. It’s a very unique skill set,” Canady said. “I don’t believe for one minute that it’s something that just anyone can go do. Not effectively.”
Clark said CPS is committed to providing “appropriate resources” for the inspector general’s review.
Responding to questions Tuesday, Emanuel said Schuler will have the money he needs. “He’ll have the resources, the inspector general,” Emanuel said. The mayor added that he’s focused on “the human cost.”
“There’s a human cost, so one question is the financials, it’s a fair question,” the mayor said. “But I actually, the way I look at it, I know Janice is looking at it, is the human cost, and why we have to make sure for our children, they are safe and secure and the parents have actually a peace of mind in that way.”