The Chicago Park District has fired a male lifeguard who allegedly “inappropriately touched” a girl participating in a parks program, according to a new report from the agency’s internal watchdog.
The firing of the unidentified lifeguard came two years after widespread allegations of sexual assault, abuse and harassment surfaced at the city’s public beaches and pools. The scandal led to criminal charges against two male lifeguards, the resignations of the top Park District officials — and promises of reform from the agency’s new General Superintendent and CEO, Rosa Escareño.
In the latest incident, though, the Park District’s inspector general describes a disturbingly familiar situation.
The internal investigation began with “a complaint that a male lifeguard inappropriately touched an underage female program participant during the summer of 2022,” records show.
Investigators for the Park District said they “obtained photos of one of the incidents,” and the photos “showed the lifeguard grappling with the victim in an attempt to throw her into the water.”
The inspector general’s report for the second quarter of this year added, “The victim reported that [the male lifeguard’s] actions made her feel uncomfortable.”
The male lifeguard was “terminated from employment” on the inspector general’s recommendation, and the allegations were forwarded to the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Both the police and DCFS are conducting pending investigations, according to the inspector general.
On Wednesday, Park District officials said in a statement that they had fired the male lifeguard immediately after receiving the inspector general’s report.
“Any conduct that compromises the safety, respect and well-being of employees and patrons will not be tolerated,” the Park District said.
And in the statement, Park District leaders said they were “proud of the reforms made over the past year.” Officials say the agency’s Office of Prevention and Accountability, which was created in response to the scandal at the beaches and pools, “became fully operational in February.”
Park District officials did not identify the male lifeguard who was fired, and the inspector general’s report did not detail where the alleged incidents last year had occurred or the exact age of the program participant who was the victim.
In the inspector general’s report, investigators also said they tried to get training records for the male lifeguard but “found that the Park District had no central database for training records and did not have guidelines or controls for retention of training records.”
In response to those findings from the inspector general, Park District officials have created a training-records database and plan to train employees on how to use that database.
A Park District spokesperson said officials are developing a system “to centralize training records that are currently housed in multiple departments.”
Officials said that move “will ensure that records of mandatory trainings for all employees, both year-round and seasonal, will be accounted for and easily accessible to track compliance.”
The interim inspector general, Alison Perona, could not be reached Wednesday.
No charges filed after public corruption probe
The park district watchdog’s office began a probe into sexual misconduct targeting lifeguards in 2020, after two young female former lifeguards sent detailed letters to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Park District CEO at the time, Michael Kelly.
But the probe remained out of public view for more than a year, until WBEZ reported on the “broad investigation” in April 2021. Before WBEZ’s story, top parks officials did not take any real action to respond to the problem, according to a report issued by a former federal prosecutor hired by the park district board.
The scandal led to the resignations of many top parks officials, including Kelly and the politically-connected Park District Board President Avis Lavelle.
Escareño replaced Kelly, apologized to lifeguards and promised to institute meaningful reforms, once saying at a public forum on the scandal that the Park District was “not just giving you lip service here.”
The inspector general reported last year that her office found proof to back up 29 allegations against employees in the Park District’s Aquatics Department, concluding that “bullying, harassing and sexual misconduct flourished and went unchallenged.”
Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx opened her own investigation and eventually charged two lifeguard supervisors with sex crimes.
A year ago, Maurico Ramirez — who was 32 at the time — admitted committing sex crimes against much younger female employees he supervised, becoming the first Park District employee convicted in Foxx’s probe.
Ramirez was sentenced to three years of probation, 40 hours of community service, electronic monitoring and lifetime sex offender registration after pleading guilty to two felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
The case against Hector Coz — another former lifeguard supervisor charged with sex crimes — is pending, according to court records. Coz’s next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 14.
Foxx also had assigned public corruption investigators to look into the Park District’s handling of the issue, but a spokeswoman for her office told WBEZ on Wednesday that this aspect of the investigation concluded without any charges being filed.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.