Welles Pool in Lincoln Square
Welles Park pool in Lincoln Square is run by the Chicago Park District, which is investigating complaints of sexual abuse by workers at the city’s pools and beaches. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Park District Is Investigating Claims Of Widespread Sexual Harassment, Assault Among Lifeguards

Confidential documents show the inspector general is looking into “allegedly toxic and dangerous” work environments at beaches and pools. In the most serious case so far, investigators say a 16-year-old was assaulted by a more senior lifeguard.

Welles Park pool in Lincoln Square is run by the Chicago Park District, which is investigating complaints of sexual abuse by workers at the city’s pools and beaches. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Welles Pool in Lincoln Square
Welles Park pool in Lincoln Square is run by the Chicago Park District, which is investigating complaints of sexual abuse by workers at the city’s pools and beaches. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Park District Is Investigating Claims Of Widespread Sexual Harassment, Assault Among Lifeguards

Confidential documents show the inspector general is looking into “allegedly toxic and dangerous” work environments at beaches and pools. In the most serious case so far, investigators say a 16-year-old was assaulted by a more senior lifeguard.

Welles Park pool in Lincoln Square is run by the Chicago Park District, which is investigating complaints of sexual abuse by workers at the city’s pools and beaches. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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The Chicago Park District is conducting a “broad investigation” into complaints that dozens of workers at the city’s pools and beaches regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” – sometimes against minors.

Confidential reports obtained recently by WBEZ show investigators with the park district inspector general’s office have already gathered evidence corroborating accusations against at least three male lifeguards for sexual assault, harassment or retaliatory threats against their subordinates – including one incident involving the sexual assault and attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl. The park district’s watchdog says its investigation is “wide-ranging, comprehensive and robust,” with more reports to come.

The probe began in March 2020, after the park district’s top official and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office received separate complaints from two former female lifeguards. Each of them alleged serious misconduct by “dozens of Chicago Park District employees in the Aquatics Department,” the documents show.

One of the two whistleblowers – who told the mayor’s office she had been sexually assaulted by a “more senior” employee when she was 17 – alleged “a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District” and said she believed there was “little support” from parks officials for those who report problems.

Last month, investigators with the inspector general’s office reported to the park district’s board and two of its top officials that one veteran lifeguard likely “committed criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse” in 2018, when he forced the 16-year-old female lifeguard to perform a sex act on him, according to the documents obtained by WBEZ.

In another case, investigators concluded that an Aquatics Department employee sexually harassed “two junior female lifeguards,” and later “sexually attacked” each of them in public swimming pool locker rooms.

A third parks employee was described by investigators as “a manipulative serial sexual harasser who abused his position as a Park District supervisor to satisfy some sort of sexual desire while simultaneously protecting his job.”

The man denied findings that he repeatedly harassed and threatened three female subordinates at the park district. Five years ago, he was fired from a Chicago Public Schools lifeguarding job – while already employed with the park district – for making “inappropriate advances” toward high school students.

Welles Pool in Lincoln Square is part of Chicago Park District
Confidential reports obtained recently by WBEZ show investigators have already gathered evidence corroborating accusations against at least three male lifeguards working for the Chicago Park District for harassment, sexual assault or retaliatory threats against their subordinates. WBEZ

All three men were placed on emergency suspension, records show. Two of the men no longer work at the park district. The inspector general recommended that the third be fired. WBEZ is not publishing their names because none have been charged criminally.

But in the reports on all three of those cases so far, the investigators made clear that the findings against the men grew out of a “larger, ongoing, and highly sensitive review of allegations” that workers in the Aquatics Department “regularly engage in employee-on-employee sexual abuse and assault, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and other illegal acts.”

The inspector general’s office also told the board that it expects to level a series of new findings against more “individual subjects of investigations,” and it promised to “then address any systemic failings that its investigation uncovered.”

The investigation already has dragged on for more than a year, hampered by what the inspector general’s report called a “dearth of Park District resources.” Until now, the probe has continued in secret, even as the park district is again taking job applications for a new group of summer lifeguards.

Despite the inspector general’s findings that “illegal” or “criminal” sexual misconduct likely took place repeatedly, neither the park district nor its inspector general would reply when asked if they had referred any of the incidents to law enforcement.

A spokeswoman for the mayor declined to comment Monday, referring all questions about the investigation to the park district.

In a statement to WBEZ, park district officials would not describe the scope of the investigation nor answer other questions about their response to the issue, saying the probe was ongoing and they would comment further once the inspector general’s work “is complete and released to the public.”

“The Chicago Park District is committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment for all employees,” officials said.

The park district is responsible for 26 indoor pools, 51 outdoor pools, another 15 pools at schools, 23 beaches on Lake Michigan and the city’s one inland beach at the Humboldt Park Lagoon.

Elaine Little, the inspector general for the park district, also declined to describe how many cases of sexual misconduct her office is investigating or how long she expected the probe to continue. But Little said the office “acted with urgency and dedicated a substantial amount of resources to conduct a comprehensive investigation,” and she praised those “who are brave enough to voluntarily recount their ordeals to our office.”

Sexual harassment “was the norm”

In their interviews, the women painted a disturbing picture of a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. The inspector general’s reports do not name the accusers, and WBEZ is withholding some details of the incidents they describe in order to protect their identities.

According to the reports obtained by WBEZ, the first of the two complaints that sparked the inspector general’s investigation was received by Michael Kelly, the park district’s superintendent and chief executive officer, on Feb. 7, 2020. Investigators extensively quoted from both whistleblower complaints in their reports to Kelly, all the park district board members and the district’s top lawyer.

A woman who had served as a lifeguard in 2019 told Kelly about “a work environment where sexual harassment, among other employee misconduct, was the norm,” investigators wrote.

The woman, identified only as “Complainant A,” alleged that senior lifeguards regularly called her a litany of misogynistic, profane slurs, the investigators told the park district board.

“Complainant A further recounted that, at an end-of-the-season banquet, senior lifeguards gave ‘awards’ to junior lifeguards that were degrading, such as ‘Bitch of the Beach,’ ‘Little Dick,’ ‘Manwhore of the Beach’ and ‘Slut of the Beach,’” according to investigators.

Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael P. Kelly
Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael P. Kelly. Chicago Park District

Nearly a month after Kelly fielded that complaint, on March 6, 2020, the mayor’s office got a letter from another former park district lifeguard with five years of work experience.

The second whistleblower said “managers” at the park district disregarded and even mocked her allegations of being sexually assaulted at age 17 by another, higher-ranking employee, so she feared retaliation and did not formally report the incident.

She also said the park district was rife with everything “from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape,” records show.

“I have both heard and witnessed more horrifying stories about employees experiencing sexual violence: employees being groped, individuals being forced to make-out, managers giving unwanted attention to female employees,” she wrote.

And she alleged it was “very difficult for a report to get escalated” when misconduct was reported, and that perpetrators often ended up suffering only “mild” consequences.

Lightfoot’s office forwarded the letter they got to Kelly, who then gave both complaints to the inspector general’s office on March 19, 2020 and asked for an investigation, records show.

The records obtained by WBEZ do not indicate why Kelly did not forward the initial complaint to the inspector general for nearly a month and a half. According to the inspector general’s office, park district officials did not refer the matter for investigation until after Kelly got the second complaint from Lightfoot’s office.

In their statement Monday, park district officials said they “took immediate action when notified of allegations of misconduct, including referring the information to the Inspector General.”

“Allegedly toxic and dangerous work environments”

In recent weeks, investigators have told the board that the two complaints from early last year morphed quickly into a bigger investigation of multiple specific incidents “as well as threats of retaliation made by supervisors and peers to silence Park District lifeguards from reporting such misconduct.”

The inspector general’s office also wrote that it was looking into “allegedly toxic and dangerous work environments at several Park District beaches and aquatics centers” and “unacceptable workplace behaviors that the Aquatics Department’s management failed to address.”

The most serious of the three cases reported by the inspector general so far involved a lifeguard who worked for the Park District for seven years, with assignments at North Avenue Beach, Foster Beach, Welles Park and Portage Park.

Investigators said the evidence they found showed “it is more likely than not” that the employee had “violated Illinois criminal law with his actions against a rookie female lifeguard at North Avenue Beach” in 2018.

They said they gathered “substantial, credible and corroborated testimonial evidence” that the senior lifeguard forced an underage lifeguard to perform a sex act on him “by locking her in his automobile until she complied with his demand … then attempted to rape her.”

The woman told investigators her assailant pressured her during the incident by saying he could bring negative consequences against her at work.

The teenager “believed that [the alleged assailant], who was a more senior lifeguard with years of experience with the Park District, had some supervisory authority over her, since she was only a rookie,” investigators wrote. “She accordingly complied with his demand.”

The man was in his 20s at the time and knew she was 16, the junior lifeguard told investigators. Two other lifeguards “each independently told the [inspector general’s office]” the junior lifeguard had told them about being sexually assaulted.

Two employees of the Chicago Park District enforce social distancing at North Avenue Beach
Two employees of the Chicago Park District enforce social distancing at North Shore Beach in June 2020. Investigators say a 16-year-old rookie was assaulted by a more senior lifeguard after they left work at nearby North Avenue Beach. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

In a text message the following year, witnesses in the investigation said the alleged attacker planned to give his accuser the “Slut of the Beach Award” at the end-of-season banquet. He backed down from doing that, saying, “Relax, it’s just a joke.”

In the summer of 2020, after the junior lifeguard told another lifeguard about the incident, she said her attacker threatened her and the co-worker in a text message. Investigators displayed a copy of the message in their report.

That text message, the junior lifeguard said, made her fear for her and her family’s safety, and she told her mother and sisters about the sexual assault. Although her mother wanted to contact police, the junior lifeguard did not want to “‘re-live’ the assault and instead wanted ‘it to be over with,’” according to the report on the case.

The young woman “voluntarily contacted” the inspector general’s office last September at the urging of “a number of female Park District lifeguards” who already had been interviewed in the investigation.

When interviewed by the park district’s inspector general, the young woman said she still did not want to contact the police for fear of retaliation against her or her family.

She also had not reported the assault to the Aquatics Department or the park district’s Human Resources officials, she said, “because lifeguards exist in a ‘tight community,’ which causes female lifeguards to ‘worry about being ridiculed and further harassed by others’ for reporting such incidents.”

The inspector general’s office sought to interview the accused lifeguard in early March. But he declined because he had resigned from the park district the month before, while already under investigation and suspension, according to the report in the case.

The inspector general called on officials to place the man on the park district’s “Do Not Rehire” list.

At his home last week, a woman who identified herself as his sister told WBEZ he was not there when a reporter sought to find him. He did not respond to emails seeking comment.

“Sucks to be a female” in city’s Aquatics Department

Another case detailed by the inspector general involved a man who worked for the Park District as a lifeguard for eight years. Investigators wrote that one of his two accusers told them “it really ‘sucks to be a female’ in the Aquatics Department because females are always bullied.”

She said the male lifeguard “molested” her in the women’s locker room at Portage Park in 2016, fondling her over her clothes even as she pushed his hands away and “repeatedly pleaded” for him to stop, according to the report.

A second accuser told the inspector general’s office of a similar attack by the same man two years later in the locker room at Jefferson Park’s pool. The man restrained the junior lifeguard and forcibly fondled her beneath her clothes, according to the report.

Last week at his home, the accused lifeguard told WBEZ the allegations were false and declined to discuss the matter further.

Investigators say the man’s union representative told them in March – the day after they asked to interview him – that he no longer works for the park district, does not intend to apply again to be a lifeguard and “would not participate in any interview with them.”

Portage Park Pool is part of Chicago Park District
One of the alleged incidents of sexual misconduct described by investigators occurred in the women’s locker room at the Portage Park pool on Chicago’s Northwest Side in 2016. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The inspector general’s office said park district leaders also should put the man, who is in his mid-20s, on their list of people ineligible to be rehired because they found evidence he “repeatedly committed various forms of sexual misconduct against two female lifeguards with whom he had worked.”

Each of the two women he allegedly attacked had “independently related that, in 2020, they had confided in one another” about how they had been victimized by the same man, records show.

One of the women told investigators she did not file a police report or tell park district officials about the alleged assault “because she did not think that anything would be done.” The other young woman similarly said she had not considered going to the police because “she believed that she could not do anything about what he had done.”

“Manipulative serial sexual harasser”

The third man who has been the subject of an internal investigation is fighting the inspector general’s findings of sexual harassment at Welles Park, where he supervised about 10 lifeguards before the COVID-19 pandemic caused that pool and others to close. He began working for the Aquatics Department more than a decade ago.

Last summer three female lifeguards told investigators the man “sexually harassed, sexually propositioned, or threatened each of them” and also had “engaged in similar behavior toward other employees,” according to a report issued in March.

Investigators say interviews with his accusers “paint a damning picture” of a “manipulative serial sexual harasser.”

One of the junior lifeguards said the man asked whether they could shower together and later refused to give her a ride home from work unless she would perform a sex act on him. A second said he repeatedly asked when the two of them could have sex, and a third was brought “to tears by his constant harassment.”

When confronted, the man at one point allegedly boasted that park district supervisors would believe his denial over their accusations, according to what the lifeguards told investigators.

Jefferson Park Pool is part of Chicago Park District
Another alleged incident of sexual misconduct involving lifeguards occurred at the Jefferson Park pool in 2018. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Park district investigators also discovered that, in 2016, the man had been fired after just a month on the job as a Chicago Public Schools lifeguard for making “inappropriate advances” toward two high school students, both in person during school hours and on dating apps. He also was put on the school district’s “Do Not Hire” list, according to the report.

On Monday, CPS officials said they did not know whether the school district had told the park district about the problems they had with the lifeguard.

Two of his three accusers at the park district told investigators they did not report the behavior because their harasser told them superiors would believe him and not them. The third young woman said she “did not trust” a supervisor, because she suspected he would tell the attacker about her complaint and that she had “no available avenues to voice her concerns” without suffering fallout in her work situation.

In an interview with the inspector general’s office, the man categorically denied the accusations against him. The watchdog’s report said his response was “implausible and strains credulity,” and the inspector general’s office called on the park district to fire him and put him on the “Do Not Rehire” list.

But a park district spokeswoman did not answer when asked if the park district fired the man or had put any of three of the accused lifeguards on the banned list, as recommended by the inspector general.

A spokesman for Service Employees Union International Local 73 – the union that represents the lifeguard and other park district employees – said the labor group had not received notice from officials that they had made any decision on the recommendation to fire the man.

The accused lifeguard did not reply to emails and a message left at his home.

Investigation “proceeding as rapidly as possible”

According to documents in the probe, Park District Board President Avis LaVelle has not authorized the inspector general to identify “any complainant or victim.” The inspector general, however, was permitted by LaVelle to name the subjects of the investigation in the reports to the board.

LaVelle was spokeswoman for former Mayor Richard M. Daley and has worked also for the company that operates the city’s parking meter system. She did not return messages Monday.

When the investigation is completed, records show, the inspector general will issue a “summary report” to the board president and the general superintendent.

Park District Board President Avis LaVelle
Park District Board President Avis LaVelle. Chicago Park District

The park district probe is “proceeding as rapidly as possible, given the allegations’ severity, sensitive nature, and scope,” the inspector general’s office told the board.

But the investigators said they “encountered unique difficulties,” including the “fear of facing retaliation” expressed by those who may have suffered or witnessed the misconduct.

The investigation also has been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, the fact that some people they want to interview are seasonal employees who attend college out of town and a “dearth of Park District resources specifically dedicated to sensitive investigations of sexual abuse and sexual assault.”

The inspector general’s reports against the three men came as the park district posted online job listings for lifeguards and prepared to reopen Chicago’s pools and beaches. Applicants must be 16 or older as of July 1.

The pools and beaches were closed due to the pandemic, but some pools have reopened for lap swimming and team sports.

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