Five questions for Chicago Park District in the wake of lifeguard sexual abuse scandal | Editorial

Is it too much to ask what’s going on?

Apparently so when it comes to the Chicago Park District and misbehaving lifeguards.

For the past several months, reporters for the Sun-Times and WBEZ have asked park district officials to discuss, as best a personnel matters legally allow, accusations of sexual abuse that have been leveled against lifeguards, a possible culture of tolerance for such abuse, and exactly what is being done about it.

In response, park district officials have offered up only partial and sketchy responses and failed to make the district’s top executive, Supt. Mike Kelly, available for interviews.

It all might suggest that this public agency would rather not come clean with the public.

Here then, for the record, are a few of the many questions to which reporters continue to wait for full and complete responses:

Early last year, a female park district lifeguard complained of physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use by lifeguards at Oak Street Beach. Supt. Kelly wrote to the young woman in an email on Feb. 7, 2020 that he would forward her report to the district’s inspector general for “an independent investigation.” He thanked her for her “courage.”

But, as Fran Spielman and Lauren FitzPatrick of the Sun-Times reported this past week, Kelly then waited six weeks before forwarding the complaint to the IG — on March 19, 2020 — and he did so then only after the mayor’s office had forwarded to the park district a second woman’s more graphic complaint.

Question: Why the six-week delay? The park district, in a June 23 letter posted on the district’s website, says Kelly took “immediate action” when notified of allegations of misconduct, but why was the inspector general not notified for so long? And what other “immediate action,” if any, was there?

A report released by Park District Inspector General Elaine Little in July concluded that six female lifeguards had, in fact, been sexually harassed and assaulted by male co-workers, and this included an attempted rape. All three accused male lifeguards no longer work for the park district. Two resigned during the inspector general’s investigation to avoid being fired. A third resigned earlier this year.

Question: Did the park district ever contact law enforcement? If not, why not? Did the district hope that the male guards’ resignations might make this all go away? Just how involved were park district officials in obtaining those resignations?

The alleged attacks occurred between 2016 and 2019 at three locations — Welles Park, Jefferson Park and North Avenue Beach. Much of the alleged abused, such as lewdly inappropriate remarks to female lifeguards, took place in front of children. One lifeguard allegedly brazenly drank and smoked pot while on duty.

In addition, WBEZ reports that “nearly a dozen” women who formerly worked as Chicago lifeguards have since come forward to reporters to say that none of this is shocking and new — that this sort of abuse and nonsense stretches back decades.

Question: Who else knew these women had come forward?

Question: Is this scandal about more than the three lifeguards who resigned? Is there a wider culture of tolerance within the lifeguard ranks, or elsewhere within the park district, for sexual harassment and abuse? If so, what is the district doing to change the culture?

One of the accused lifeguards had previously worked for the Chicago Public Schools, where he was fired for making “inappropriate and uncomfortable advances” toward two female high school students. CPS placed him on a “do not hire” list.

Question: Why did the park district apparently learn only after hiring the lifeguard that he was on the CPS “do not hire” list? What is being done so that this does not happen again?

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