A new report says Evanston botched its response to ‘pervasive’ lakefront sexual misconduct

Evanston beach
An Evanston beach on Feb. 8, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Evanston beach
An Evanston beach on Feb. 8, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A new report says Evanston botched its response to ‘pervasive’ lakefront sexual misconduct

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Young, female lifeguards and other beach workers in Evanston suffered from “pervasive” sexual misconduct at the hands of their managers, and city officials badly mishandled their complaints, according to a blistering report by a law firm that was made public on Friday.

The Evanston City Council hired the lawyers to conduct an independent investigation last July – right after WBEZ first reported on accusations of sexual harassment and violence from 56 young women and girls who worked at the north suburb’s popular, sandy beaches.

The female beach workers filed a petition detailing their allegations and demanding an apology in 2020. But city staff kept the matter hidden from Evanston’s elected leaders and the public for a year, and the investigators concluded in their newly released report that officials neglected to deal with the petition immediately, as they should have.

The lawyers from the Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter firm also said they found the city had failed to provide sexual harassment training to lakefront employees and that employee misconduct complaints were “often handled inappropriately.”

And the investigators found that the workplace culture at the beaches of Evanston featured routine “on-duty predatory abuses of power” against younger, female lifeguards by male supervisors.

One male supervisor had sexual relationships with multiple female lifeguards who were managed by him, including “non-consensual sex,” according to the 75-page report.

“When the [Human Resources] processes failed at the lakefront, dozens of young women stepped forward to raise the alarm,” the investigators concluded. “It was the City’s obligation to take it from there—to elevate the serious allegations to City leadership, to see that the claims of misconduct were properly investigated, and to make changes to correct the wrongs they found. That is not what happened here.”

Women who signed the petition in 2020 told WBEZ they welcomed the lawyers’ report.

“I think vindicated is the right word for it,” said Anna Fredrick, one of the four organizers of the petition drive. “It’s just nice to have it confirmed by these lawyers, I guess.”

The lawyers gave their report to elected officials in Evanston earlier this week, days after

a WBEZ story included an interview with a young woman who alleged an older, male manager sexually assaulted her when she was too intoxicated to consent.

In text messages obtained by WBEZ, that young woman told the manager in 2020 that he and other superiors at the Evanston lakefront were “taking advantage of kids” who worked under their guidance and that their behavior had “f***** people up for a long time.”

The manager replied to her that he was “sorry for everything” and acknowledged she was “too young for me.” But he said he had not been previously aware that she felt he violated her at an off-duty party, according to the text exchange.

The woman was one of dozens who had detailed their own personal stories of harassment and abuse while working for Evanston in the July 2020 petition.

But in their report for the city, the investigators said, “The City neither considered nor undertook an investigation into the petition’s allegations,” although they should have done so immediately.

The law firm brushed aside a litany of excuses that city staff initially provided when asked why they had not delved into the complaints.

The lawyers wrote, “The City officials who were aware of the petition’s allegations offered justifications for the lack of investigation, including the petition organizers’ request that they not, the lack of specific allegations with names and dates, a false assertion that the allegations were largely about actions that took place ‘off campus,’ and the perception that the misconduct was part of ‘beach culture’ not limited to Evanston. We find none of these justifications persuasive.”

“These millennials hold onto things”

The investigation found blame for the “incorrect decision” to not conduct an immediate probe into the petition fell largely on Jennifer Lin, the city’s top human resources official at the time.

The independent counsel also reported that Lin and other officials suggested “the culture of parties, drinking, and drugs was not necessarily unique to Evanston” and was common among beach staff in other places, too.

“In her interview with investigators, and in some of her contemporaneous emails, Lin noted that some of the young women complaining about the behavior they experienced had themselves ‘behaved badly,’” according to the investigators’ report.

“The implication was that though they were now complaining about it, the petition signatories may have themselves been willing participants in the culture they were now complaining about.”

The investigators also wrote that, “From the beginning, Lin appeared skeptical of the petition.”

When another city official told Lin about the petition, she replied that she did not “want this to be some sort of concern that is based on stuff from last year, which hasn’t surfaced this year.”

And in another message, she wrote to the other official that “these millennials hold onto things.”

Lin, who no longer works for the city, declined to comment Friday, saying, “I need to read the report first.”

Records show she was put on administrative leave shortly after WBEZ broke the story of the petition last summer, with then-City Manager, Erika Storlie, blaming Lin for not telling her about the petition.

Lin and Storlie both left the city payroll after receiving severance packages last year.

Another official who is criticized in the new report – top Evanston parks official Lawrence Hemingway – resigned on Monday.

The lawyers said WBEZ’s story last year had sparked “an onslaught of personnel actions” at Evanston’s city hall.

The petition organizers told investigators they considered taking their complaints to the media in 2020 “but decided against it to give the City an opportunity to correct the conditions.”

But last summer “began with what the petition organizers saw as continued unacceptable practices,” the investigators said. And in April, WBEZ had revealed that there were widespread sexual misconduct complaints against lifeguard supervisors at the Chicago Park District’s beaches and pools.

“Clear tension” between elected officials and city staff

An Evanston resident put Mayor Daniel Biss – who was elected last year – in contact with one of the petition organizers in June 2021. The resident told Biss that “Evanston had a lifeguard problem similar to that experienced by Chicago that was currently in the news.”

The organizer gave a copy of the petition to Biss, who reached out to city staff about it. Lin told him “that they had handled the situation the previous year and made changes based on the petition organizers’ requests,” the lawyer wrote.

Then, after WBEZ contacted Biss to ask him to comment on the petition, Biss told Storlie and city spokesman Patrick Deignan that the City Council should meet in closed session to discuss the matter.

According to the new report, “Storlie strongly disagreed that a special executive session should be called, telling investigators that she thought doing so would only draw more attention to the matter, and that could wait a few days for the next regularly scheduled council meeting. Biss disagreed, and insisted an executive session be called for the soonest possible date.”

A special session of the council finally was held on July 17, the day after WBEZ broke the story. Investigators say “clear tension emerged between City staff and the City Council” in that period.

Several staff members “stated that it seemed Council members were happy to throw City employees under the bus if things went wrong. Put simply, the City staff we talked to consistently expressed a view that the City Council does not have their back.”

Investigators said Storlie told them this “dynamic” influenced how she responded to the petition last summer.

“Storlie said because she did not have the petition, she did not think the situation was serious enough to require her to bring it to Council, and absent that, she was not eager to do so because she saw significant downside risk with very little upside,” according to the report.

Staff also told investigators that they “felt the attention from the City Council and Mayor Biss was driven not only by a concern about what had happened at the lakefront, but a desire to score political points or get rid of City personnel they disliked for reasons unrelated to the lakefront.”

Although Storlie did not become aware of the full extent of the complaints from the beach workers until 2021, WBEZ has reported that she and the mayor at the time, Steve Hagerty, got an email from a former beach employee referring to the petition that summer and asking that they take action.

Investigators referred to that complaint in their report, describing it as “a clear missed opportunity.” They wrote, “Storlie could have followed up with Lin to ask what petition the employee was talking about, for example. Had Storlie done so, she might have seen the petition much sooner than July of 2021. But we find no basis to conclude that Storlie had complete information about the petition and failed to act in 2020.”

Storlie did not immediately reply to messages Friday.

Mayor vows to enact reforms

Biss, a former state lawmaker, said the new report provides Evanston with a blueprint for dealing with issues “in a thorough and comprehensive and appropriate way, and root out problems instead of trying to sweep them under the rug.”

He also told WBEZ that the report “absolutely” vindicated the young girls and women who came forward with the allegations.

“My inclination was, of course, to believe the women from the beginning,” Biss said. “We now have an exhaustive report that corroborates what they said and really demonstrates that we’ve got a lot of work to do at the city to, first of all, treat people who come forward with allegations in an appropriate and respectful way, that honors the risk that they took to come forward.”

At the special meeting on July 17, council members decided to hire an outside firm. Through the end of January, the legal bills from Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter have totaled more than $125,000, records show.

The firm says its work for Evanston included about 60 interviews – with input from 19 of the 56 current and former beach workers who signed the 2020 petition – and covered more than 500,000 emails and other internal city communications.

“I think it’s very thorough,” Biss said.

The investigators say the interviews laid bare that “the lakefront had a culture susceptible to abuses of power.”

According to the report, “The lakefront operated with limited oversight—both because the City took a largely hands-off approach to the beaches and because it was managed for years by a single full-time City employee who was overburdened, with little time to maintain close supervision over the lifeguards and other seasonal staff.”

Compounding the problem, the lawyers said, was how “the lakefront staff was organized into strict hierarchy.” In that structure at the beaches of Evanston, young, mostly male managers were “vested with broad discretion over their subordinates, and lower-level staff were instructed to obey the chain of command,” according to the report.

As a result, “Sexual misconduct was pervasive at the lakefront,” the lawyers said. The abuses ranged from “widespread sexual commentary about female lifeguards’ bodies” by male beach staff to a power dynamic that allowed supervisors to prey on teenage girls and college-age women.

“Beach managers asked that younger lifeguards to whom they were sexually attracted be assigned to work at their beaches,” the investigators wrote. “Male supervisors used their

positions to isolate female lifeguards from their coworkers, including by approaching them in lifeguard chairs when the women could not leave due to safety rules. Male supervisors also favored women they found attractive and wanted to ‘hook up’ with (or were hooking up with) by giving them better schedules and other benefits, which resulted in differential treatment to other women who they were not pursuing.”

Commonly, the lawyers said, there were “supervisor-subordinate relationships.” Almost always, they involved a male boss and a female underling.

“The women in these relationships often felt pressure to enter the relationship and pressure to continue it,” according to the report. “They were worried about the professional ramifications of ending the relationships.”

The report concluded with nine recommendations, including increased supervision at the lakefront and reforms in the city’s human resources practices to “ensure that investigations are handled by trained investigators with adequate capacity.”

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