Could Chicago schools do a better job protecting students? Some city officials think so

Much-anticipated City Council hearings Wednesday over the sexual abuse crisis in Chicago Public Schools produced few solutions — but did make one point quite clear: Chicago officials’ response to the crisis has meandered without firm leadership and direction.

Aldermen peppered district officials with angry, and sometimes incredulous questions during the more than three-hour hearing.

Six months after the student sexual abuse scandal broke, the school district hasn’t hired anyone to head the office formed to protect students. Instead, a top school district lawyer — whose office was implicated in failing to protect students — and three mid-level directors helm the new office, known as the Office of Student Protections and Title IX.

School district spokesman Michael Passman told Chalkbeat Chicago that the district is working hard on finding a candidate. But he could not provide a target date for the hire, who will report directly to schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Jackson did not appear before the council on Wednesday.

“I’m a little disappointed that Janice isn’t here. This is a really important issue,” said Ald. Susan Garza, who demanded to know how so many cases of child abuse could be mishandled and underreported. “Who dropped the ball?”

Garza also questioned why the district is spending $3 million on its office of student protections. Instead, she said, the funds might be better spent on counselors at every school to support students, to get to know families and to provide a safe space to field reports of abuse and mistreatment.

Schools, Garza said, “should be the office of student protections. Your school should protect you!”

Ald. James Cappleman grilled the district representatives about the district allowing non-clinical professionals to interview students about sexual assault allegations.

Ald. Robert Maldonado railed about the office’s limited language capability.

Similarly, Ald. Raymond Lopez asked incredulously, “One person out of five [investigators] speaks Spanish, for a school district that is 50 percent Latino?” He concluded, “You’re not equipped to deal with your population you’re being asked to serve as much as you should be.”

Aldermen and child advocates brought up concerns that a hotline used to report abuse isn’t staffed 24 hours, the need for more social workers to address issues on the ground, and fears that stringent background check policies, while a reasonable precaution to keep students safe, are unfairly erecting barriers to some parents volunteering at schools, especially immigrant parents.

The tough questions underscored Chicago aldermen’s first public hearing about the sexual abuse scandal — six months after the Chicago Tribune revealed the school district’s mishandling of student sexual abuse investigations over the past decade, which unfolded amid a revolving door of school chiefs.

The district has assigned the investigation into what went wrong over to its inspector general, Nicholas Schuler. The school district earlier hired former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey to review its handling of complaints and make recommendations. In August, Hickey released a preliminary report that blamed instability in leadership at the district — both in chief executives and network chiefs — for a gap in oversight that failed to protect student victims of sexual abuse.

The report also found “systemic deficiencies … at all levels: in the schools, the networks, the central office, and the Chicago Board of Education,” and concluded that “CPS did not collect overall data to see trends in certain schools or across geographies or demographics. Thus, CPS failed to recognize the extent of the problem.”  

Hickey is also serving as an adviser to the student protections office.

The district has assigned five people to the office responding to complaints of sexual harassment and abuse against students, and has five investigators to examine the most serious cases of student-on-student sexual abuse and violence. The office also has a training and compliance coordinator.

Since Sept, 4, the office has fielded 624 reports, including 491 allegations of student-on-student offenses and 133 allegations of offenses by adults, including adults outside of schools, according to the district.

At City Hall Wednesday, North Side Ald. Harry Osterman said City Council members should meet again in March to gauge progress made at the school district to keep Chicago students safe.