At West Side military high school, alleged misconduct often went unreported: watchdog

A school marquee outside Marine Leadership Academy in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago.
The Chicago Public Schools inspector general’s latest report details more failures by Marine Leadership Academy principal’s to safeguard students. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

A Marine Leadership Academy principal contributed to a “dysfunctional and divisive environment” at the West Side school and failed to conduct a background check on a volunteer before he was allowed around students, according to Chicago Public Schools’ watchdog.

The office of William Fletcher, the Chicago Public Schools inspector general, on Thursday released its second summary report publicly detailing more instances of sexual misconduct, inappropriate behavior between a volunteer and students, and failures by the principal to safeguard students at the public military academy and college-prep high school.

The report issued during winter break — and just days before Christmas — concludes the inspector general’s investigation that started in 2019. The second report paints a picture of a school culture where sexual harassment and charges of abuse and inappropriate behavior were overlooked or brushed under the rug by those in charge.

The latest from the inspector general’s office summarizes the final two reports issued to the Chicago Board of Education on its investigations at Marine Leadership Academy, or MLA. In total, the office has issued five reports to the Board of Education detailing allegations of sexual misconduct at the school dating back to 2016.

According to the watchdog, the principal violated the CPS Volunteer Policy by failing to have a volunteer complete fingerprinting and a background check before unsupervised interactions with students, according to the latest report.

The volunteer’s interactions included unsupervised interactions with students, as well as calls and text message exchanges with students. He also took students out for meals and went for walks with them, according to the report.

The principal eventually reported the volunteer for texting with a student but failed to report multiple instances where he violated CPS policies. The volunteer was eventually removed in Jan. 2020 after the principal raised concerns about his conduct, but investigators found no evidence of sexual misconduct with students.

Still, investigators found multiple instances of staff failing to comply with Chicago Public Schools policies prohibiting interactions between staff and students, including texting, connecting on social media, or giving students rides.

The report separately said the principal contributed to a “dysfunctional and divisive environment, which played a role in whether MLA staff members reported violations of CPS policies at all and how the reporting was handled, or mishandled.”

Even while under investigation, former Marine Leadership Academy principal Erin Galfer was promoted by the district before being fired on Nov. 6, according to WBEZ and the Sun-Times.

Neither Galfer nor her attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.

The Chicago public school at 1920 N. Hamlin Ave. is affiliated with the Marine Corps JROTC program and is one of a handful of schools connected to branches of the U.S. military. In 2013, a plan by district officials to convert the neighborhood school into a military academy faced significant community pushback.

The report said military staffers were responsible for most improper communications with students, citing more than a dozen phone records. But the watchdog said they found no evidence that the communications between instructors and students were sexual.

The full investigation substantiated allegations of violations of other CPS policies against 13 individuals, including the Marine Leadership Academy principal, four current and former staff members, four teachers, three military instructors, and a member of the MLA board of governors, the military school’s equivalent to a local school council member.

Chicago Public Schools office of the inspector general, or the OIG, investigated allegations against 29 individuals associated with the school. The allegations spanned sexual abuse of students, grooming nonsexual conduct, failure to report inappropriate behavior, and violations of CPS guidelines and policies. 

Since the investigation’s started, the school district’s investigative arm communicated with Chicago Public Schools and the city’s police department regarding student safety. The watchdog agency contacted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at least 22 times since 2019 about allegations at Marine Leadership Academy, according to the November summary report from the inspector general’s office.

That report describes a school employee having a sexual relationship with a student after that student turned 18. Another staffer groomed a student and began a sexual relationship after that student graduated. A third employee sexually harassed and retaliated against a student after the student filed a report, and a fourth groomed one student and crossed boundaries with others, according to the report.

Seven other staffers, including the principal, assistant principal, head of security, a counselor, and a teacher’s assistant, did not report and actively hid suspected violations, the OIG said.

District officials said all staffers involved have been removed from the district.

No individuals currently face criminal charges, according to the OIG.

Mary Fergus, a Chicago schools spokesperson, said in an email that the OIG investigation “revealed a school culture in which adults did not keep the safety and well being of students a priority.”

“CPS has zero tolerance for perpetrators of inappropriate relationships and abuse and complicit non-reporters who do nothing to stop such behavior,” Fergus said.

With the investigation now completed, the district has begun to move forward with “disciplinary action or dismissal proceedings against involved employees and will keep the impacted students updated on any action taken,” Fergus said.

During the Chicago Board of Educators December meeting, district CEO Pedro Martinez addressed the “culture of inappropriate adult behavior” at Marine Leadership Academy

“Our top priority at CPS is protecting the safety and wellbeing of our students, ensuring that all students feel safe, supported, and valued and that their learning environment reflects a culture of respect and trust,” Martinez said. “When that standard is not upheld, we are committed to being transparent and taking actions to fix it.”

The CEO said the “perpetrators and enablers” had all been removed from the school and were being disciplined to the greatest extent possible.”

He expressed frustration that federal and state laws have until recently limited the district’s ability to prosecute those who are grooming students. Weeks after the allegations emerged, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law aiming to make all forms of grooming illegal.

Martinez said that the district would “not tolerate anyone using their position of authority to manipulate children, and those who turn a blind eye to this behavior will have no place in our schools.”

The reports come more than three years after a 2018 investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed a systemic failure in the school system’s handling of cases of sexual misconduct. The district responded to that investigation by transferring some investigative authority to the inspector general, creating a 20-person Office of Student Protections tasked with protecting students from sexual violence and discrimination, establishing a reporting hotline for alleged abuse, and strengthening its background check policy for staff, vendors, and volunteers. At the time, Chicago also removed two principals.

Following the revelations in last month’s OIG report, the union said the lack of action was concerning and called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to make her “district responsible for all facets of student safety.”

“We cannot continue to have such an alarming lack of attention, and lack of action, in protecting children,” the union said Friday. “We must also continue to push back against cultures of fear and intimidation from administrators in our schools.”

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