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CPS knew for years about sexual misconduct claims against staff at a city high school, but promoted principal anyway, records show

Chicago Public Schools attorneys and leaders long had knowledge of an investigation into sexual misconduct and failure to report it by the principal at Marine Leadership Academy, despite claiming otherwise Friday. And, in the two years that the investigation went on, not only kept the principal on staff but also promoted her, information obtained by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times shows.

The school district has fired 10 employees as a result of this investigation. Some of the staff are accused of grooming students or having inappropriate relationships with three separate students. The school district says the others knew about these situations and failed to report them.

One of those terminated was the school’s former principal, Erin Galfer. Her firing on Nov. 6 for failure to report came just months after she was promoted to a high-level role within the district’s college and career success office. She had been principal since 2015 of Marine Leadership Academy, which is in the Logan Square neighborhood on the near Northwest Side.

“The behavior uncovered by this investigation represents a stunning betrayal of trust and colossal failure of judgement and character on the part of far too many individuals,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.

Galfer denies that she failed to report sexual misconduct and says it was CPS officials, not her, that failed to take the sexual misconduct seriously. Galfer’s lawyer issued a statement late Friday saying “the tragic failure at Marine falls at the feet of CPS who long knew about the misconduct and did not take timely steps to protect the students.” The statement does not say what more Galfer thinks district leadership should have done, but says she is fighting her firing and defending her reputation.

Will Fletcher, the district’s inspector general, said his office alerted CPS in April of 2019 about three allegations and listed the principal as one of those being accused of knowing about, but not reporting, some of these situations. These allegations were from an anonymous source.

The inspector general’s office quoted a note it shared internally with CPS, saying “FYI, This is the third sexual complaint that we have received this week from Marine,” according to the public summary of the investigation, which was posted Friday.

And, as time went on, the inspector general’s office insisted it continued to keep CPS in the loop to help inform decisions about what employees needed to be removed.

During the two-year period of the investigation, CPS said in a statement that it “took immediate action to remove employees when it was clear that they posed a risk to student and/or staff safety, health and wellbeing.”

This did not include the principal.

None of the former leadership of CPS responded to questions about the investigation at Marine Military Academy. Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney, who previously led the equity office, said Galfer’s promotion was in the works before he moved positions in June.

On Friday, Martinez said the district didn’t know the extent of the investigation until the inspector general’s office briefed officials in late October. And CPS followed up to state the principal was fired once the district learned in that briefing that she was “part of the ongoing comprehensive OIG Investigation that yielded substantiated findings regarding the school culture.”

However, in the same statement, school district officials acknowledge that “CPS” knew far earlier. They said CPS was informed in April 2019 by the inspector general “that several employees, including the former principal, were alleged to have failed to report an abuse case.” The statement was in response to questions about the legal department’s knowledge and involvement. Despite that, the statement refers to “CPS” without specifying who at CPS knew and why that information was not taken into consideration when the principal was being promoted.

That huge lag in time before the investigation was complete and final action taken — more than 2 years — prompted outcry from staff at the school, who felt their concerns were being ignored. And now Martinez says he wants to do something about it.

Under his administration, he said staff who fail to report a case of abuse or neglect will be removed, not just the perpetrators. In addition, before someone is transferred or promoted, officials will check if they are under investigation.

Martinez said on Friday future investigations should be completed much faster. He said the inspector general’s office had a backlog, but with fewer cases coming in during the pandemic, they have been able to clear it. Also, this year, the school district added six more staffers to the inspector general’s office.

What happened at Marine Leadership Academy?

The inspector general’s report released Friday provides details about what occurred at the school. Two teachers had substantiated claims against them: one for having sex with a student in 2015-2016, and another for grooming a student and making sexual advances after graduation. In one of those cases, the investigation uncovered texts from a teacher to a student saying, “I can’t wait until you turn 18,” officials said.

The inspector general also substantiated allegations against three military instructors, two for inappropriate interactions, such as personal conversations and text messaging, and another for sexual harassment. In 2013, the school went from being a neighborhood middle school to a military academy for middle and high schoolers — a move that some community members and parents fought against.

Galfer and a security guard are taken to task for knowing about the sexual relationships between the teachers and the students, but not reporting them, according to the report. In one case, Galfer only reported the abuse 15 minutes after a child welfare investigator visited the school.

The inspector general also found that two other teachers and a security guard also knew about these relationships and did not alert anyone. And the inspector general says the results of two additional investigations will be released in the coming weeks.

But even before these current allegations, there was evidence that Galfer was not being vigilant about background checks or removing staff accused of harming students. In 2017, a report written by a CPS attorney said the district determined Galfer failed to report a student had a nude photo of a staff member and lied about knowing the picture existed, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. Galfer was also cited in 2015 for failing to report a picture that included a staff member holding a beer.

Another investigative memo completed in spring 2018 found that Galfer allowed a volunteer to coach a sports team without verifying he completed a background check and, even after he was accused of sexual misconduct, did not make sure he stopped volunteering at the school. Investigators did not find evidence of sexual misconduct on the part of the coach.

Neither of those cases appears to be among those later investigated by the inspector general. The CPS Law Department used to handle those types of cases before the inspector general took over all adult-on-student sexual misconduct investigations. That change happened in 2019 in the aftermath of a Chicago Tribune series detailing the district’s widespread mishandling of cases. In response, then-CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she was “sick to her stomach.” She promised a review of practices and past cases.

It’s unclear if Galfer was ever reprimanded in those two cases, and the CPS Law Department failed to release these investigations or any information in response to a 2020 WBEZ public records request for Galfer’s personnel file.

At the time, attorneys said part of the reason they weren’t releasing Galfer’s personnel file was “portions of the requested records that have been determined to be factual information inextricably intertwined with an ongoing investigation or disciplinary proceeding.” On Friday, CPS indicated that the investigation had nothing to do with the sexual misconduct probe. Instead, they released an investigative report into Galfer for pressuring a military officer working in the school to resign rather than fire him properly. She was suspended for a day, which she argued in a letter was unfair.

Galfer also feels she is being treated unfairly now. Galfer’s attorney, Jonathan Karmel, said CPS “falsely stated that our client ... failed to report the sexual misconduct” at Marine Leadership Academy.

“Notwithstanding Mr. Martinez’s attempt to create a false narrative, the tragic failure at Marine falls directly at the feet of CPS who long knew about the misconduct and did not take timely steps to protect the students,” Karmel said in a statement.

“Instead, Erin was wrongly terminated and looks forward to restoring her reputation and, more importantly, holding CPS responsible for its endemic failures to protect CPS students.”

Martinez told reporters Friday at a press conference that preempted the inspector general’s report that there was a “culture of behavior and distrust that occurred at Marine Leadership Academy that is not tolerated by our district.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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