Questions about sexual abuse cases squeeze top of CPS org chart

Teachers and coaches have been barred from buildings pending investigations into accusations that they sexually abused students. Principals at schools where students were allegedly abused have been “reassigned” or axed. But no one atop the chain of command at Chicago Public Schools has faced removal for the school district’s failure to protect students, despite calls from parent groups and lawmakers for top officials to step down.

Meanwhile, the questioning is getting more pointed, with an influential parent group challenging Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark at a public meeting, while state lawmakers and Chicago aldermen push for Clark and CPS CEO Janice Jackson to attend hearings intended to probe the district’s handling of cases of reported misconduct. The scandal also puts Mayor Rahm Emanuel under the microscope. Emanuel holds power over the school district, and appoints board members and school CEOs alike, which raises questions about his role in decision-making.

Emanuel’s spokeswoman Lauren Markowitz wouldn’t say whether he would answer lawmakers’ questions at any of the proposed or planned hearings, but said in a statement, “The mayor supports CPS’ work as they spare no expense to make sure our kids are safe.”

“Their work continues, because all of us are committed to ensuring what happened in the past does not happen again in the future,” she said.

On Wednesday, at the first board meeting since the sexual abuse scandal went nuclear, a member of the vocal parent group Raise Your Hand stepped to the mic to ask Jackson, Clark, and other officials—on the record—about their role in CPS’ mishandling of sexual abuse cases.

Raise Your Hand spokeswoman Jennie Biggs, whose children are enrolled at two CPS high schools and one elementary school, began her remarks by pointing out a little-known aspect of the district org chart: that CPS lawyers who interrogated student sexual abuse victims reported to the district’s general counsel, who reports directly to the board president. That means, she continued, “that President Clark and his predecessors were briefed on rampant reports of sexual abuse in our schools over time.”

Biggs said that the public doesn’t know how much Clark, who was named board president in 2015, or his predecessor David Vitale, who served from 2011 to 2015, knew about systematic problems at CPS related to sexual abuse, or how much they shared with their colleagues on the board. “But we do know that they knew and did nothing.”

“The CPS legal department handled over 400 cases of sexual abuse or assault incidents in the school setting over the last seven years,” she said. “We want to know: How is it possible that the board never recognized that more needed to be done to ensure proper training at schools, and why did you not employ network staff to ensure compliance in this area?”

“Sure, some individual teachers, principals and staff are also complicit,” she told the board. “But you hold the keys to district policymaking, and you did not act. You did not do your jobs.”

No one on the board responded.

Angling for more hearings

In a statement emailed to Chalkbeat and other local news outlets after the meeting, CPS spokesman Michael Passman elaborated on Clark’s role, saying Clark is briefed “on significant investigations and legal actions, and whenever he has been presented with a matter involving sexual abuse he has pushed CPS staff to help ensure district practices are as strong as possible.” The email listed policies implemented since 2014 to keep students safe, including strengthening background checks, establishing a discipline committee to review employee misconduct investigations, holding trainings to help employees identify signs of abuse, and enacting policies offering guidance to principals on reporting requirements and ensuring appropriate student/staff interactions.

However, Passman wouldn’t say how many sexual abuse incidents Clark was notified of, when he was notified, or name specific measures or policies he “pushed.”

And Clark hung up when Chalkbeat Chicago called seeking more details.

"We want to know: How is it possible that the board never recognized that more needed to be done to ensure proper training at schools?"

Jennie Biggs

Lawmakers also want to reach the board president to find out what Clark knew—and when. Some were left livid last week when Jackson and Clark skipped a state hearing about the abuse scandal. CPS sent representatives from various departments, but legislators were not satisfied.

“The question is: Was the law department conducting these investigations and not reporting back to Frank Clark—or if they were reporting, why didn’t the board and Frank Clark do something sooner? It’s one or the other,” said state Rep. Fred Crespo, chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.

Crespo, a Democrat whose district includes Chicago’s northwest suburbs, said state lawmakers are planning a second hearing, and that he will ask Clark, Jackson, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appear.

Chicago aldermen also have seized the moment, introducing a City Council resolution to establish hearings about sexual abuse with the council’s Committee on Education and Child Development and Clark, Jackson, and top city officials.

But one of the aldermen backing the measure, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd ward, which includes parts of Lincoln Park and Logan Square), said he has struggled to garner support from the committee chair, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st, which includes parts of Auburn Gresham and Chatham)—thus leaving the resolution in limbo. Brookins wasn’t reachable for comment Thursday.

To bypass the committee, Waguespack said aldermen could lean on “Rule 41,” a parliamentary procedure that would allow council members to wait 60 days before bringing the resolution to a vote at a City Council meeting. But since there’s no council meeting in August, they would have to wait until September, at least. Even then there’s no guarantee they could get a hearing, because the council can vote down the maneuver, especially if Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn’t back it, which he hasn’t publicly. 

“It’s imperative when you look at the chain of command to ask: Who were the people involved who knew about it, and what responsibility is there for those people to either resign or be fired,” Waguespack said. “To me that’s the ultimate question.”

A “top-to-bottom” review

In a May board meeting, just days before the Chicago Tribune first reported the widespread mishandling of sexual misconduct cases involving students and adults, the board tapped Maggie Hickey, a former federal prosecutor and state Executive Inspector General, to spearhead an independent review of CPS’ handling sexual violence at schools.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Hickey was tight-lipped about the scope of her review.

“I am looking at all the policies and procedures in a top-to-bottom review,” she said.

Asked more specifically if her review would address the role played by Clark and the board, she reiterated: “I am doing a top-to-bottom review.”

Also potentially examining the role district leaders played in handling abuse cases: CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler. The school board this week granted him the power to review CPS’ handling of sexual assault cases going back to 2000.

On Thursday, Schuler said it was too early to say whether his review would explore the actions of Clark and other top officials, but that “the answer to that is—potentially.”  

“We follow the evidence where it leads,” he said. “If it turns out people at a high level or low level responded inappropriately, we’ll be looking into that.”

Crespo questioned whether Schuler will be empowered to review the district’s response. “If it were up to me, I would give the inspector general power to conduct investigations and have him report to the Illinois State Board of Education, and then ISBE would work to see how the review went and help implement recommendations,” he said. “I just don’t see this current model working very well for the students at CPS.”

In early June, Emanuel apologized to student victims and pledged to fix systemic breakdowns that put them at risk. But his challengers in the 2019 mayoral election blasted him for not acting sooner once the Tribune began filing Freedom of Information requests in January seeking details about sexual violence at schools.

In her statement, mayoral spokeswoman Markowitz said that what happened to the student victims is “unacceptable,” commended them for having the courage to come forward, and emphasized that, while CPS has taken action to better protect students, “clearly more is required to make sure this never happens again.”

“That’s why [CPS CEO Jackson] and her team have implemented new policies, new trainings, renewed background checks, and a top-to-bottom review of the district to better safeguard and advocate for students,” Markowitz said. 

Yet, critics of CPS and the mayor’s office argue that CPS’ latest controversy is another example of city officials failing to proactively tackle or disclose problems, and then scrambling to put out fires only after they’ve been exposed by journalists and government watchdogs.

Crespo emphasized that the sexual abuse scandal comes on the heels of revelations about delays and denials of services for students with special needs and exposés about filthy conditions at scores of CPS schools. “Where is the board?,” he asked. “How can they let all this happen?” And, Crespo added: “How involved is Mayor Rahm Emanuel in these decision-making processes?”  

“It all starts and ends with him,” Crespo said.