Female Lifeguards, Beach Workers Allege Rape And Sexual Harassment In Evanston

Evanston Lifeguard tower
A lifeguard chair towers over Clark Street Beach in north suburban Evanston. More than 50 female lifeguards and other beach workers signed a petition alleging widespread sexual misconduct by coworkers and bosses on the lakefront. Richard Cahan / WBEZ
Evanston Lifeguard tower
A lifeguard chair towers over Clark Street Beach in north suburban Evanston. More than 50 female lifeguards and other beach workers signed a petition alleging widespread sexual misconduct by coworkers and bosses on the lakefront. Richard Cahan / WBEZ

Female Lifeguards, Beach Workers Allege Rape And Sexual Harassment In Evanston

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse. If you have a tip or experience you wish to share confidentially with WBEZ, you can contact Investigative Reporter Dan Mihalopoulos at investigations@wbez.org.

More than 50 female lifeguards and other beach employees in Evanston have alleged their co-workers in the lakefront suburb engaged in rampant sexual misconduct – often against underage girls, according to a petition obtained by WBEZ.

The most egregious alleged behavior involved a young female lifeguard who told WBEZ she was raped by an older employee in a managerial role at a party for Evanston beach workers several years ago, when she was 18.

One of the four women who authored the petition and gathered signatures said some of the female beach workers then met with Evanston city officials. But she said she was frustrated because the leaders responsible for the beaches along Lake Michigan did not agree to the demands listed in the petition, which was handed to city officials in the summer of 2020.

In the petition, the young women called on Evanston officials to apologize publicly for failing to address “the blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination that occurs at the lakefront.”

The women said the apology from the city of Evanston’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services “must include an admission of responsibility for placing underage employees in danger.

“Apologize directly to survivors, their families and all lakefront employees for consistently placing underaged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and dangerous situations and in close proximity with sexual predators,” they wrote.

In a statement to WBEZ on Thursday, Evanston officials said they have “zero tolerance for sexual misconduct” and believe they have reacted properly since getting the petition from the beach employees a year ago.

“The City is confident that the appropriate actions have been taken to respond to the serious issues raised and to ensure a safe, healthy environment for all lakefront staff and visitors,” according to the statement.

Officials said they immediately conducted sexual harassment training and appointed a “trusted” parks employee to act as a liaison between the lakefront workers and the city’s Human Resources Department.

The petitioners asked for the firing of two male lifeguards, and officials said Thursday one male employee was not rehired this year “after further discussions with lakefront staff.”

Sources in Evanston said the other man resigned Friday, shortly after the publication of this story.

WBEZ is not identifying the two men named in the petition because they have not been charged with crimes.

City officials said they were unable to carry out other discipline because of “the anonymous nature of the allegations provided, the resistance of seasonal staff to provide personal accounts of the allegations, the seasonal employees’ request that the issues not be investigated further and the fact that many of the allegations related to off-duty, after-hours behavior.”

Newly elected Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, who took office in May, told WBEZ he began to look into the situation for himself after learning of “the horrifying allegations” – and he declined to say on Thursday whether he approved of the city’s response.

“I can’t assess our actions until all of my questions are answered to my satisfaction,” said Biss, who was previously a Democratic state lawmaker and candidate for governor. “We have a profound moral responsibility to do everything in our power to make the lakefront safe, and any response less than that is completely unacceptable.

“I am enormously grateful to the brave young women who brought these concerns forward,” Biss added. “We must do right by them.”

The Evanston City Council hastily scheduled a special meeting at 6 p.m. Saturday, and a source said it was called specifically for the council to discuss the sexual-misconduct allegations in closed session.

The accusations in the north suburban community have not been reported publicly until now. They were made at roughly the same time the Chicago Park District’s inspector general began what has become a broad probe into allegations of widespread sexual violence against female lifeguards at the Chicago’s beaches and pools.

In April, WBEZ revealed the ongoing internal investigation in Chicago started in the spring of 2020, after a female former lifeguard sent a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot alleging she was sexually assaulted by a higher-up when she was 17.

Chicago parks officials say three veteran lifeguards have been banned from working for the park district after the investigation found evidence corroborating the allegations against them. But the inspector general’s office is probing complaints against dozens of employees, according to documents obtained by WBEZ.

Lightfoot has said she was “following the developments very closely” and urged investigators to complete their work quickly. After the first story about the topic, city parks officials announced that they had hired an outside law firm to bolster the inspector general’s understaffed office.

In Evanston, current and former lifeguards and other workers at the town’s six beaches also said they have endured similarly disturbing behavior in recent years, when they were teenage girls or college-age women. They alleged in the petition that there was an abusive, “boy’s club” atmosphere at the beaches.

Evanston currently has 144 seasonal employees on the lakefront, including 44 lifeguards and 37 workers in supervisory positions. Only 14 of those higher-ups are women.

“For years, women working at the Evanston beaches have been disrespected, taken advantage of, and been made uncomfortable by their fellow staff members,” according to the petition. “By signing this petition, we are acknowledging that all of us have experienced this unacceptable behavior.”

“Sexual activity with underage female employees”

Fifty-six women who have worked on Evanston’s lakefront signed the petition within a few days in July 2020, according to the documents obtained by WBEZ. Many of the women who signed the petition also added anonymous descriptions of what they had witnessed or personally endured while working in Evanston.

Despite the city’s assertion that many of the alleged incidents happened away from the beaches and after hours, the vast majority of the comments on the petition describe misconduct that was said to have happened at work, over the past several years.

The comments described in the petition include:

  • “I know of multiple men currently working at the lakefront who have pursued sex/sexual activity with underage female employees.”

  • “One of my supervisors … asked if he could do cocaine off an intimate part of my body…Not only my supervisors, but also people I considered friends were sexually harassing my fellow female coworkers and myself daily.”

  • “Supervisors not only pursue younger (underage) women but sexualize and make jokes about them. I’d be surprised if I could go a day working and not hear an inappropriate comment towards another female (underage) employee from a higher up or manager.”

  • “The fact that I can think of FIVE (5!) different supervisors that perfectly fit the description in this petition shows that there is a major misogyny problem at the beach.”

  • “Beach culture favors the guys. It teaches them that it is okay to objectify and pursue underage girls several years younger than them. It teaches girls that standing up for yourself has negative consequences.”

  • “Working at the beach has been one of the worst things to ever happen to me…I have since pursued other guarding jobs but was forced to quit after having panic attacks…This was solely due to the harassment and toxic working conditions I experienced while working at the beach.”

  • “My supervisor rookie year would not leave me alone, ever. There is definitely favoritism played to girls who are wanted by managers…Older workers eagerly await new female workers, and opportunities to see them in their work uniform; a bikini and swimsuit. If male workers cannot handle women in summer clothing …they truly do not deserve the job.”

In one case, a teenage lifeguard said she was 17 when she was having a sexual relationship with a much-older manager and that some of their encounters were not consensual because she was “highly intoxicated” and unconscious.

In another instance, a woman described being pursued by a manager when she was 16, even though she told him repeatedly that she was underage and was not interested in him. The manager later attacked her at a banquet for lifeguards, kissing her and touching her until she shoved him away, according to the allegation in the petition.

“People who live in Evanston should know”

And the most serious allegation in the petition came from a female lifeguard who alleged she was raped by a manager.

Although the young woman wrote in the petition that she was 17 at the time of the rape, she said in a recent interview that she was actually 18 then.

But she told WBEZ she stood by the account that she had written in the petition. She agreed to the interview on the condition that she not be identified in this story, and WBEZ generally grants anonymity to people who say they have been sexually assaulted or abused.

She wrote in the petition that the sexual assault occured at a party for beach workers and that her attacker was older than her and “took advantage of my intoxicated state.”

“He started kissing me and taking off my clothes,” she wrote. “When I told him to stop, he begged me to let him keep going, and then eventually stopped listening to me.”

In a recent interview with WBEZ, the woman said she did not “actually realize it wasn’t consensual until I had to go through mandatory sexual assault and harassment training when I entered college.

“It was just like the culture of working there had convinced me that what happened was completely fine, even though I was deeply affected by it, immediately,” she said.

She said harassment began during lifeguard training.

“They would scream really humiliating things at you during rookie training and pass it off as imitating Army training,” the woman said. “It was just really bizarre.”

She and other former Evanston lifeguards said bosses at the beaches often subjected underlings to a practice called “the hot seat,” shining a bright lamp on lifeguards as they shouted highly personal questions at them.

The woman said she did not file a formal complaint with park district officials at the time of the alleged rape because she did not know her rights and was not comfortable talking about the issue with the same higher-ups who cultivated an abusive and sexist work environment. Back then, she says, she felt content to never return to the job again after the end of the summer.

And she said she heard some of the same lifeguards who harassed women also make “racist remarks,” including slurs directed at other employees. The city of Evanston’s spokesman said officials don’t tolerate racist speech or behavior but the allegations from lakefront staff were anonymous and did not identify who exactly was being accused.

The woman now says she doesn’t want revenge or accountability for her attacker’s actions but that she was motivated to speak out so that the misconduct at the town’s beaches would end.

“I think that people who live in Evanston should know what goes on here and what has happened here,” she said in an interview along the lakefront. “And I don’t think minors should be allowed to work here. That’s the very least I can hope out of this.”

“It was a nightmare”

Another woman who was one of the four organizers of the petition drive said she was motivated to gather the signatures after being sexually harassed and making a complaint that did not result in any action against her harasser.

The organizer no longer works for the park district and said she and the other organizers do not want to be identified publicly because “we don’t want getting sexually harassed as teens to follow us into adulthood. It’s so easy to destroy someone’s life with lies.”

This woman said she was first harassed at an after-work “guardie” party where a boss, who was in his mid-20s, approached her and her sister. She was 17 at the time, and her sister was 15.

“He made a comment in front of my younger sister about the things he would do to me with his tongue,” she said. “They don’t understand that, even if you’re not at work, you are my boss, and it was uncomfortable to see him again the next day at work.”

She said another supervisor who was several years older than her told her he wanted to lock her in a closet and use her as a sex toy when she was 16 or 17. She said she spoke with a parks official about that incident, but the supervisor who harassed her continued to work for Evanston. When the woman asked why he was still at the beach, she says she was told her harasser had been “talked to” and she was advised merely to “let us know if anything else happens.”

City officials met with the woman and other organizers of the petition several times. In an email last August to the women who signed the petition, the organizers said city officials “all recognize the severity of the issue and are committed to taking action.” According to the email, they discussed starting sexual harassment training and taking other measures to try to “change the culture of sexism that permeates the lakefront” before the 2021 beach season.

But the petition organizer who spoke to WBEZ said the discussions with Evanston officials soon turned sour. During one meeting, she said, a city official asked petition organizers to disclose the names of the women who had detailed their allegations anonymously – which they did not do.

“It was a nightmare working with them,” the woman said of city officials. “I left so many of those meetings crying. It’s so disgusting. It just didn’t feel like they took us seriously, because they didn’t.”

The woman said one of the two men accused in the petition confronted her at work, saying he was unfairly accused because every encounter involving him had been consensual. That incident, she said, left her and other beach employees fearing for their safety. WBEZ is not naming the two men named in the petition because they have not been charged with crimes.

The petition organizer said she did not return to work at the lakefront this year and now feels she was looked down upon in her hometown for speaking out.

“The beach has been my life in Evanston,” said the woman, now a college student in her 20s. “In many ways, we are shunned from that.”

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