Whistleblower: Lifeguard Abuse Allegations In Chicago ‘Brushed Under The Rug’ By Lightfoot, Park District Boss

Chicago Park District pool
The whistleblower who prompted a broad investigation into harassment and sexual misconduct among Chicago Park District lifeguards is slamming the agency and Mayor Lori Lightfoot for their handling of the probe. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Park District pool
The whistleblower who prompted a broad investigation into harassment and sexual misconduct among Chicago Park District lifeguards is slamming the agency and Mayor Lori Lightfoot for their handling of the probe. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Whistleblower: Lifeguard Abuse Allegations In Chicago ‘Brushed Under The Rug’ By Lightfoot, Park District Boss

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A year and a half after sending a letter to top Chicago Park District officials alleging “extreme abuse from the other lifeguards,” the former employee who helped launch a wide-ranging sexual misconduct investigation says she’s deeply disappointed in how Mayor Lori Lightfoot and parks CEO Michael Kelly have handled the issue.

In her first public comments, the whistleblower told WBEZ this week she thinks her explosive, detailed complaint in February 2020 initially got “brushed under the rug” by her one-time bosses at the park district – and she feels that Lightfoot and Kelly have failed to adequately address what she called a “constant abusive environment” for young workers at the city’s public beaches and pools.

“The park district, Mayor Lightfoot, Mike Kelly – nobody is saying anything or doing much,” said the woman, who is still a teenager and now attends college. “I don’t think Mike Kelly cared enough. Honestly, it seems like a lot of people don’t care.

“The mayor and the park district are supposed to be protecting employees, and making sure we’re OK, but they’re not taking this seriously.”

The young woman – who was 17 years old when she emailed her 11-page complaint to Kelly and another top park district official – said she did not want to be identified for fear of former co-workers at Oak Street Beach, whom she accused of subjecting her to “extreme abuse” during her two summers as a parks employee. She said the seven abusers identified in her whistleblower letter were all lifeguards with supervisory authority at the famous, sandy stretch of lakefront just north of downtown Chicago.

WBEZ generally agrees to grant anonymity to people who say they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted.

Documents obtained by WBEZ show the woman sent her complaint to Kelly and also to Eric Fischer, the park district’s veteran assistant director of recreation, on Feb. 7, 2020. Kelly replied within hours, praising her “courage and call for change” – and promising to refer her serious allegations to the park district’s inspector general.

But Kelly did not act on that promise for nearly six weeks, WBEZ reported in April, when the station first revealed the previously-secret internal investigation. Kelly’s office did not notify the inspector general, triggering the investigation, until March 19, 2020, according to park district records.

And Kelly – who has been the park district’s chief executive officer and general superintendent for a decade – forwarded the complaint to the inspector general only after another female former lifeguard sent a separate complaint with even more serious allegations to Lightfoot’s office and the mayor’s aides passed on the second letter to the park district.

The whistleblower letters from the two young women have prompted a “broad” investigation into complaints that dozens of workers in the park district’s Aquatics Department regularly committed sexual harassment, abuse and assault against teenage girls and young women at the beaches and pools.

Three veteran male lifeguards have left the park district after the inspector general’s office accused them of serious sexual misconduct in a series of investigative reports to the agency’s board earlier this year, WBEZ has reported.

The young woman who filed the first complaint told WBEZ she now believes her concerns were initially ignored, and she questioned why it took so long for Kelly to do as he promised her and send her allegations to the inspector general.

“I would love to figure it out myself,” she said this week. “It should have been reported right away instead of six weeks later.”

She said she did not believe her complaint would have been forwarded to the park district if not for the second complaint to the mayor’s office, which came from another young woman she said she did not know.

“I don’t think the park district has handled this well,” she said. “I think it was kind of brushed under the rug.”

She said investigators with the park district inspector general’s office contacted her about a year ago, a few months after she sent her complaint to Kelly and Fischer. She believes the investigators have “done a good job” – but lack the resources to deal with the issue adequately.

“From what I know, it’s only two investigators,” the young woman said. “We definitely need more people [working as investigators], and a lot of changes need to be made.”

Confidential documents obtained by WBEZ show the inspector general’s office is looking into many more cases and also plans to examine any “systemic” problems. But investigators say they lack the resources to deal with the unprecedented probe.

An influential Chicago alderman has pushed to have City Hall’s watchdog add resources to the Park District’s internal probe, but Lightfoot has said she doesn’t think investigators need any more help, despite their pleas.

On Thursday, Lightfoot’s spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment for this story. Last week, the mayor dodged questions about whether Kelly had acted swiftly enough in response to the initial complaint, but Lightfoot said at the time she felt the park district had “taken the steps that are necessary.”

“People are breathing down his neck”

In a statement to WBEZ, Kelly did not respond directly to the criticism from the whistleblower. He said he had “vowed to root out the bad actors and behavior” as soon as he became aware of the allegations.

“My commitment has not wavered,” he said. “My only concern has been to create a culture where all the employees are able to work in a safe and respectful environment and I have taken many steps toward that goal.”

In a series of interviews with other media last week, Kelly acknowledged his 41-day delay in forwarding the initial complaint to the inspector general, saying he instead shared it with unidentified managers at the park district.

Park district officials have not produced any documents showing how the February 2020 complaint was investigated internally before the inspector general was contacted. They also have declined to say which managers were contacted by Kelly about the whistleblower’s complaint.

But on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the park district suggested those efforts did not get far: “Beaches were closed at that time, and given the seasonal employment of staff, it was difficult to gather information.”

In an interview with ABC7 Chicago last week, Kelly said, “Do I think I took the right course of action? Yes, I do. Would I have done it again? In hindsight, maybe I would have went to the inspector general that day.”

The whistleblower said she spoke with Kelly in April, after WBEZ broke the story of the sexual misconduct investigation. She said Kelly called her father at that time and also spoke with her during that call.

“He asked me if I had talked to investigators and to keep him in the loop about things” related to the probe, the young woman said.

She also recalled, “He was complaining about how people are breathing down his neck now.”

But she said she did not update Kelly on her discussions with the investigators. The inspector general’s office is supposed to be “operationally independent” from the park district’s board, under the agency’s rules.

“It’s very frustrating when you ask me to keep you in the loop, but you didn’t do anything for me when I really needed you to,” the young woman said.

When told what she had said, Kelly did not address the whistleblower’s account of that discussion specifically. But he said in the statement that park district leadership “continues to work and cooperate fully with the Inspector General’s Office,” and he rebutted the notion that his conversation with the young woman in the spring was meant to obstruct the probe.

“Any actions I’ve taken over the course of this investigation have been in an effort to advance these goals, and not to impede them in any way,” Kelly said.

Park district officials said Thursday five other workers at the beaches and pools were suspended, in addition to the three men who have resigned during the investigation.

“Women’s voices don’t matter”

Kelly’s comments also infuriated several other female former lifeguards who say they were sexually harassed or abused frequently at the beaches and pools for many years and decades. They spoke to WBEZ on the condition of anonymity.

One woman, who’s now in her late 30s, said she “did stand up for myself” in the face of sexual harassment by her boss at a beach but was moved to another location and “told not to speak of it.”

“Mike Kelly’s lack of action in handling these accusations prove that, to Chicago Park District administration, women’s voices don’t matter and have never mattered,” the woman said. “It establishes why for decades, women were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.”

She added that she thought Kelly “has absolutely failed” to ensure the safety of minors who work for the park district.

Another former lifeguard said she was sexually abused by a supervisor who’s now a Chicago Police officer and that virtually all women beach employees were harassed on a daily basis during her time as an employee on the North Side about 20 years ago. She said she saw Kelly’s interviews last week and found his responses “super-disappointing.”

She also noted that Lightfoot has dodged questions about why Kelly took almost six weeks to forward the initial complaint to investigators.

“I’m not surprised by how badly it’s been handled by him and Lightfoot,” said the woman, who is now a teacher. “I would imagine it’s much more painful for the women who wrote the letters. They were brave enough to actually speak up, and it’s dragging on and not being addressed in an appropriate or sensitive manner.”

The young woman who filed the first complaint was just 16 when she started working for the park district as a lifeguard.

“I thought it would be great, and it was great for the first few weeks,” she said. “Then it went straight down, to horrible.”

She said she was hit by a supervisor at Oak Street Beach, repeatedly called misogynistic terms and also witnessed rampant drug and alcohol abuse by lifeguards. In some cases, she told Kelly and Fischer last year, lifeguards were forced to drink alcohol until intoxicated and ill.

Regarding one supervisor, she said this week, “Multiple females have made complaints. Nothing has been done.”

She said other lifeguards who alleged abuse went to parks officials but were told that they had to complain on the same day as the incidents or should not bother to report the problems.

“We need to make it a better and non-abusive environment, not just for females but also for the males,” she told WBEZ.

Whistleblower left with “a lot of PTSD,” fear of males

She said she and others who did not want to drink or who complained about abuses often faced “rotting” – a practice that involves punitive, excessively long shifts on duty in the waters of Lake Michigan.

“Why should people be forced to drink or get high to avoid getting rotted?” she said. “It’s not fair to any female or male to do that.”

She said rotting also was done to lifeguards for refusing to talk about sex with a supervisor or for skipping after-hours parties with other employees, where many females were groped.

She said the mistreatment led her to have suicidal thoughts, but that she is doing well, thanks to weekly therapy sessions. She’s studying to work with survivors of sexual exploitation.

“It’s traumatic to get called these things and have these things done to you every day,” she said. “I have a lot of PTSD. I’m scared of males in general.”

She said she was “very scared to speak up” because she received threatening, profane messages after questioning how things were done at Oak Street Beach and after eventually quitting her job with the park district.

“I think I got called anorexic every day and told I had an eating disorder when I didn’t have an eating disorder,” she said. “It’s just a constant abusive environment, and everyone thinks it’s OK and normal, and that there’s something wrong with you if you complain.”

Writing to Kelly and Fischer about her experiences, she said, “was a big step for me to take in the first place.” She said she had never heard of Kelly but her mother told her about him, because her parents knew him. They headed a non-profit organization that has worked together with the park district.

In the letter to Kelly and Fischer, she described regular, on-duty drug use by lifeguards and alleged a male lifeguard slammed her into the wall of a room while “very high.”

When she refused to drink alcohol in a hazing ritual, she wrote, a lifeguard ended up “grabbing me and trying to force a bottle of vodka down my throat.”

She told WBEZ that after she didn’t hear again from Kelly or other park district officials within a few weeks, she gave up on the issue, concluding that “nothing is getting done.” Fischer never responded, she said.

She finally heard from the inspector general’s office late last summer, she said, and has cooperated fully with the two investigators, Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp and a woman who was assigned to the case.

“I’m passionate about getting this out and making sure it stops,” the whistleblower said. “We need to make changes in the park district for the lifeguards to come.

“More things could have always been done and, unfortunately, it happened the way it happened, but at least it’s getting out now, which is good.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.