By David Jackson, Jennifer Smith Richards, Gary Marx and Juan Perez
June 1, 2018
They were top athletes and honor-roll students, children struggling to read and teenagers seeking guidance.
But then they became prey, among the many students raped or sexually abused during the last decade by trusted adults working in the Chicago Public Schools as district officials repeated obvious child-protection mistakes.
Their lives were upended, their futures clouded and their pain unacknowledged as a districtwide problem was kept under wraps. A Tribune analysis indicates that hundreds of students were harmed.
Drawing on police data, public and confidential records, and interviews with teens and young adults who spoke out, a Tribune investigation broke through the silence and secrecy surrounding these cases and found that:
When students summoned the courage to disclose abuse, teachers and principals failed to alert child welfare investigators or police despite the state’s mandated reporter law.
Even in cases where school employees acted swiftly, they subjected young victims to repeated interrogations, inflicting more psychological pain and defying basic principles intended to preserve the integrity of an investigation.
Ineffective background checks exposed students to educators with criminal convictions and arrests for sex crimes against children. And CPS failed to disclose to other districts that past employees had resigned after investigators found credible evidence of abuse and harassment.
Whether the sexual attacks were brutal rapes, frightening verbal come-ons or “creepy,” groping touches, the students often felt betrayed by school officials and wounded for years.
One young athlete, a 16-year-old honors student aiming for a law career, began cutting advanced chemistry and math classes to avoid a track coach who raped her repeatedly in his office at Simeon Career Academy. Even after he was arrested, “she didn’t know if she wanted to go to school any more. She told me she felt alone. … She talked about suicide,” Simeon Principal Sheldon House testified at the coach’s 2016 criminal trial.
At Hubbard High School, Kyana Aguilar was 17 when she reported a security guard for groping her buttocks and breast. “I trusted him because he worked at the school,” she told the Tribune. “He was an ordinary person who violated me. It could happen to anyone.”
Aguilar is now 21, and the guard is behind bars. Still, she said, “there are some nights where I think about it and can’t sleep. It still haunts me.”
The exact number of cases in which school workers sexually assaulted students remains elusive, in part because CPS does so little to understand and tackle the problem. The district acknowledges that it does not track child abuse by its employees in a consistent or formal manner.
After the Tribune threatened to file a lawsuit to force public disclosure of basic CPS documents and data related to sexual misconduct, the district acknowledged that its Law Department had investigated 430 reports that school employees had sexually abused, assaulted or harassed students since 2011.
In 230 of these cases, or more than half, investigators found credible evidence of misconduct, the district said.
But CPS supplied only raw numbers — revealing nothing about what happened or which schools were involved.
To better quantify the frequency of abuse in Chicago’s schools, reporters obtained and analyzed Chicago police data on such crimes from 2008 through 2017. Police investigated 523 reports that children were sexually assaulted or abused inside city public schools during that 10-year period, or an average of one report each week, the data show.
The police data does not account for assaults that happened outside of school buildings, and it includes reports where the abuser was another student.
To learn details of the cases, the Tribune reviewed criminal charges and prosecutions, civil lawsuits filed by victims, CPS investigative reports and disciplinary actions, and state licensure hearings. Reporters also spoke to 18 students or former students who reported being sexually abused by school employees.
In all, the Tribune closely examined 108 cases and identified 72 school employees as alleged perpetrators in the last decade. The rest were student-on-student sexual attacks.
The adults involved included award-winning teachers, lunchroom aides, counselors and coaches, security officers and two deans.
No part of the city was spared. CPS employees sexually violated students in schools ranging from sports powerhouse Simeon to selective-enrollment Payton College Prep high school, police and school records show. Those two institutions each had three school workers arrested or disciplined since 2008 following allegations they sexually abused students, the Tribune found.
The student-protection failures started in schoolhouses but include the CPS central office and the district’s Law Department, which kept the results of its investigations secret and even sought to undermine the athlete raped at Simeon when it fought her civil lawsuit.
The child-protection failures also extend to state government. Weaknesses in Illinois law help protect predators, and the State Board of Education sometimes takes years to discipline disgraced educators.
At the federal level, powerful agencies in Washington, D.C., fail to collect basic data on sexual violence in America’s public schools, the Tribune found.
The Tribune sent its findings to CPS in early May. The district responded with a 25-page statement that confirmed a litany of shortcomings in its current practices and outlined a series of policy changes that it is now pushing urgently to implement. Acknowledging the bureaucratic failure to make abused students and their families a priority, the district pledged reforms in hiring, criminal background checks, investigative processes, disciplinary decisions, staff training and support for victimized students.
In an interview, schools CEO Janice Jackson said that among the many pressing issues crossing her desk, “I think this is at the top of the list. Any type of violence against a student is always going to be a top priority for me.”
The district also approved a $500,000 contract for the Schiff Hardin law firm and former Illinois Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey to conduct “a top-to-bottom review” of the school system’s response to sexual violence. Jackson told the Tribune that CPS would make Hickey’s findings public and act on them.
Jackson also said the district will work with state legislators to strengthen Illinois’ child protective laws and to make it easier for schools to remove predators from classrooms and share information with other districts. She characterized the abuse found by the Tribune as a “nightmare” for parents.
“To hear of situations like that is something that I think is wrong, I find horrible,” said Jackson, who took office in December. “I’m not going to be satisfied until I’m confident that we’re doing everything within our power to stop that or reduce the likelihood of it happening. I think our parents deserve that. Nobody wants to send their kids to school and be worried about them being safe or being harmed.”