An empty lifeguard stand on Lake Michigan in Chicago.
A lifeguard stand sits empty on a Chicago beach. Nearly a dozen women who worked as Chicago lifeguards spoke to WBEZ about experiencing sexual misconduct while working at the city’s beaches and pools. Steve Geer / iStock/Getty Images

Female Ex-Lifeguards Describe Decades Of Sexual Abuse At Chicago’s Beaches And Pools

Nearly a dozen women told WBEZ that supervisors sexually harassed or assaulted them with impunity: “It happened to all of us,” said one woman.

A lifeguard stand sits empty on a Chicago beach. Nearly a dozen women who worked as Chicago lifeguards spoke to WBEZ about experiencing sexual misconduct while working at the city’s beaches and pools. Steve Geer / iStock/Getty Images
An empty lifeguard stand on Lake Michigan in Chicago.
A lifeguard stand sits empty on a Chicago beach. Nearly a dozen women who worked as Chicago lifeguards spoke to WBEZ about experiencing sexual misconduct while working at the city’s beaches and pools. Steve Geer / iStock/Getty Images

Female Ex-Lifeguards Describe Decades Of Sexual Abuse At Chicago’s Beaches And Pools

Nearly a dozen women told WBEZ that supervisors sexually harassed or assaulted them with impunity: “It happened to all of us,” said one woman.

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.

For decades, Julie Tortorich buried the worst memories of the summer she spent as a teenage lifeguard with the Chicago Park District.

Two times, she said, a supervisor cornered her in a park office and sexually abused her.

That was in the 1970s. Now a 60-year-old grandmother of eight, Tortorich said recent news that the park district’s inspector general is investigating alleged, widespread sexual misconduct against lifeguards “brought back this flood of memories” — and disappointed her deeply.

“To think that it’s even going on today, after the #MeToo movement — that anyone would even think that they could get away with these things — is unheard of to me,” Tortorich said. “But I believe it’s a systemic problem.”

Tortorich is among nearly a dozen women who worked as Chicago lifeguards over the last five decades and spoke to WBEZ about their harrowing experiences at the city’s beaches and pools. They came forward since the station revealed the ongoing, internal probe of the park district’s Aquatics Department. Though Tortorich wanted her name used for this story, WBEZ generally agrees to grant anonymity to people who say they have been sexually abused or assaulted.

In April, WBEZ first reported that the park district’s inspector general had been secretly conducting the “broad investigation” for more than a year, probing complaints that dozens of workers regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence and other criminal acts.”

Earlier this year, investigators told top park district officials and board members that the misconduct targeted minors in some cases — including a 16-year-old girl who said her North Side beach supervisor forced her to perform a sex act and then attempted to rape her three years ago.

The probe found evidence corroborating her story and allegations of sexual misconduct against two other veteran lifeguards. But investigators also said they’re looking into other cases and “systemic failings” within the park district, records show.

WBEZ published news of the investigation just as the park district began seeking to hire lifeguards as young as 15 years old to work this summer. Since then, many current and former lifeguards reached out with their own stories of the harassment and abuse they say they endured — often when they were underage.

While the inspector general’s reports cover incidents in the last few years, the 11 women who spoke with WBEZ in recent weeks said sexual misconduct has been endemic in the ranks of Chicago’s lifeguard service for generations. They also allege that park district officials — who say they do not tolerate such behavior — have failed to adequately deal with the problem since the 1970s.

Top Chicago Park District officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

Many of the female former lifeguards say they cherished the camaraderie, forming lifelong friendships at their first jobs, where they earned nice paychecks for working in the sun, sand and water. But they also say their predominantly male supervisors habitually preyed on them with impunity, in a deeply rooted workplace culture of rampant sexual harassment and physical abuse.

“Sexual harassment was the norm, daily, and assault was common and dealt with in-house,” said one woman, now a teacher in her late 30s, who worked as a lifeguard at a beach on the North Side starting when she was 17. “It happened to all of us.”

Julie Tortorich poses for a photo at her home in Darien, Illinois on June 7, 2021.
Julie Tortorich poses for a photo at her home in Darien, Illinois on June 7, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

An “ingrained” culture of sexual misconduct

The women who spoke with WBEZ were park district employees at beaches and pools across the city in each of the past five decades — a span of alleged sexual misconduct that’s far longer than previously reported.

Like most of the other women who were interviewed, the teacher who worked as a teen lifeguard asked not to be identified in the story, partly because the man who she says attacked her now is an officer in the Chicago Police Department.

The woman says she was sexually abused by a supervisor at a party at his house. But harassment, groping and other forms of sexual degradation were even more commonplace on the beaches and poolsides of the park district, she and other women told WBEZ.

For example, she recounted that a “complete part of the culture” was for supervisors — known as mates and captains — to frequently subject younger, female lifeguards to what she called “the reach-around.”

“Our butts were always grabbed by mates and lifeguards, but there was something that we called the reach-around, and that was sort of worse than getting your butt grabbed,” she said. “If someone grabbed your butt but kept reaching around and under, it was much more invasive, and much more unpleasant. That was one of the things that was part of daily work.”

She also said other lifeguards once used a police officer’s handcuffs to shackle her to a tree near the lakeshore against her will and then tickled her while she was confined. The woman showed WBEZ a photograph of an armed officer wearing shorts as he unlocked the handcuffs, with the beach visible in the background.

Another woman who was a 16-year-old rookie lifeguard at a pool on the North Side nearly 10 years ago said supervisors were aware of blatant sexual harassment but “just preferred to look the other way and not do anything.”

“I just want to convey how problematic and widespread the behaviors were in the Chicago Park District among lifeguards,” said the woman, who also did not want to be identified. “I can only imagine how many other young female guards experienced similar things. It seemed so normal at the time. It was so ingrained in the culture of lifeguarding.”

Tortorich said she was abused by an older, adult supervisor decades earlier, who started by getting “handsy” while the two were in the water at work.

She said he later cornered her in a park office and began groping her. “I could feel his erect penis. I was pushing him away,” she said.

The man stopped, but Tortorich said he later attacked her one other time, stopping only after she called him a “creep” and pushed him away again.

Like several other women who spoke to WBEZ, Tortorich said she did not report the attacks because she was afraid to speak up — and was too young and naïve to know any better. She also said the “disgusting” incidents made her wonder at the time if she had done something wrong herself to provoke her attacker.

“I didn’t even think that it was something that I could say,” Tortorich said. “I was embarrassed that it happened. It was awful. … It’s crazy the things that you think when you’re” a teen.

The park district is responsible for nearly 100 swimming pools and two dozen beaches across Chicago. After being closed for a year because of the pandemic, the beaches and pools reopened last month.

According to an ad for this year’s class of new lifeguards, applicants have to live in Chicago, pass the lifeguard test and turn 16 no later than July 1. Starting pay is $15.57 an hour.

The relatively good wages for summer jobs — and the chance to work in places that everybody else visits just for fun — have been a big draw for young applicants who are strong swimmers for generations.

“I loved the beach,” said one woman who participated in the park district’s junior lifeguarding program before getting a job at a beach on the Far North Side nearly 20 years ago. “I grew up in the city. I loved that job.

“But it was miserable the way we were managed. I didn’t want to leave. Here we have this jewel. But I was forced to leave because of the way it was,” she recalled. “They made my life miserable. I didn’t want to go to work. It was unbearable.”

The recent revelations of continuing problems in the lifeguarding corps did not surprise her: “This has happened every single summer for the last 40 years.”

A photo of Welles Pool in Lincoln Square, which is part of Chicago Park District.
Former lifeguards say they believe the management structure at Chicago’s beaches and pools creates a situation that’s ripe for sexual misconduct. “Every female lifeguard I know has had some experience of sexual harassment.” Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“Sexual Harassment Saturdays”

Many former lifeguards say they believe the management structure at Chicago’s beaches and pools creates a situation that allows sexual misconduct to fester.

Although there are many female lifeguards, the ranks of the captains and mates are overwhelmingly male. In 2018 and 2019, fewer than one-third of those supervisors at the park district’s beaches and pools were female, according to a WBEZ analysis of payroll records.

Ex-lifeguards said men have dominated the lists of captains and mates for decades.

One woman said her captain at a beach on the Far North Side was responsible for one particularly humiliating incident about 15 years ago.

“He put on a cowboy hat, took some rope and he lassoed me,” she recalled. “Tied me up and left me on the beach, like I was a calf at the rodeo.”

The woman said the captain who did that to her was in his 30s at the time. She also said mates at that beach routinely subjected younger lifeguards, including her, to what they called “shake and bakes,” which are also known as being “rolled.”

“It was essentially being chased down by the other guards, tackled to the ground, picked up, thrown in the water, then dragged in the sand,” she said. “It was highly encouraged by the mates and captains.”

While being rolled, she said she and other young colleagues were “constantly being groped” by more senior lifeguards. When she complained to female mates, she said they were dismissive, telling her she deserved it.

“The attitude was if you gave the mates a certain kind of look, you were asking for it,” she said.

The woman said lifeguard supervisors routinely engaged in “Sexual Harassment Saturdays,” slapping younger female lifeguards on the butt and other parts of their bodies, especially where they were sunburnt.

“I’m mainly disappointed this thing is still happening,” she said. “I regret not being confident enough at the time to report this earlier.”

She said she stayed in the job for several summers because it paid well.

“I was getting paid $12 or $13 an hour and during that time, especially with no other training, that was being paid very well, and I needed to save money for when I was in college,” she said.

She said she contacted WBEZ now in the hopes that the situation will be “rectified for future generations, future lifeguards. … It’s a situation no one should have to go through.”

At the same beach, during roughly the same time period, another woman said “all the bosses were inappropriately touching” young female guards. When “brave girls” made accusations of abuse against two male lifeguards, one was asked to leave and the other was moved to another beach, she said.

“There was no public display of reprimand,” she said, echoing what several women told WBEZ. “It was like an abusive priest being moved to another parish.”

Several former lifeguards said mates and captains often would punish female underlings who responded negatively to being harassed by assigning them to long shifts in rowboats on the lake. This practice, they said, was known as “rotting.”

Some of the worst abuses took place at alcohol-soaked banquets at the end of the summer, many ex-lifeguards said. According to records from the inspector general’s office, the “awards” given to junior lifeguards at end-of-season banquets included “B**** of the Beach” and “Slut of the Beach.”

“Absolute law on the beach”

To understand the challenges these women have faced to even report abuse — let alone for it to be investigated — requires an understanding of the hierarchy among lifeguards that the park district has maintained for generations.

According to “The Mates’ Creed,” published in a park district manual in 1975, the lifeguard corps followed a virtually military model. Mates were to “enforce and maintain strict discipline” among the lifeguards they supervised.

“The Captain and Mate are absolute law on the beach — the Mate an absolute authority when the Captain is not present,” according to the official document. It was authored by Joseph Pecoraro, who was the top official overseeing beaches and pools for the park district for decades.

After ending his 51-year run as a park district employee in 2000, Pecoraro penned a memoir about the lifeguarding corps in Chicago, titled Naked Rescue. He boasted that the training and skill of the lifeguards led to an “amazing safety record.”

One chapter of the book was dedicated to the topic of female lifeguards. Except for a few years during World War II, he wrote, girls and women did not begin working as lifeguards in Chicago until 1969.

The first female recruits, Pecoraro recalled, got a pep talk: “You are going to take a lot of s---. But you had better be ready to be stronger and tougher than any of these guys.”

He said they proved up to that challenge by showing “they could out-swear, out-work and out-drink all of the guys on the crew. They were probably the best six guards on the beach, despite all the harassment, intimidation and pranks pulled on them.”

But Pecoraro wrote that there were “some challenges.”

“The males would be chased out of the locker rooms or washrooms when the girls changed,” he wrote. “At North Avenue and several of the major locations, the girls would chase the boys out of the showers and leave one girl standing guard while the others showered.”

Still, by the time he retired, Pecoraro said, “Sexual harassment complaints were almost non-existent.”

Pecoraro could not be reached to comment for this story.

One former lifeguard echoed many others when she said there are few formal complaints because “nothing changed even when I would say stuff. You can’t fight this whole system by yourself. There was systematic manipulation at the top. … It was totally OK to call us b****es in front of other managers.”

Some female former lifeguards said they banded together in the early to mid-2000s at one beach, forming what they self-deprecatingly called “the b**** crew” because of their shared hostility toward sexual harassers among male mates and captains.

A woman who was a lifeguard for three recent summers on South Side beaches said her captain, a man in his 30s, laughed when a mate grabbed her butt and also hit on her on her 18th birthday, saying, “Now you’re not jailbait. We should go out.”

She said “the same people who are the perpetrators” led sexual-harassment training sessions, which she described as cursory.

“It’s so pervasive,” she said. “Every female lifeguard I know has had some experience of sexual harassment. Nearly all my supervisors harassed me in some way. But I was naive. It was my first job, in this environment. I didn’t know what to do.”

A photo of a Chicago beach.
Tourist and Chicago residents flood Chicago’s Lakefront and beaches during the hot summer days on July 6, 2019. Former lifeguards say when young female guards made sexual assault accusations they would be moved to another beach or asked to leave. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“Healing and empowerment”

After the investigation was revealed in a WBEZ report, park district officials said they had partnered recently with Resilience, “an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the healing and empowerment of sexual assault survivors.”

The park district did not provide any contract with Resilience in response to a request from WBEZ. But in an email in March, a woman from Resilience wrote to a top agency official “about the prospect of working with the Chicago Park District” and laid out several options. The proposal included charging the park district $150 an hour for reviewing its policies and making recommendations or billing more than $7,000 for a virtual training session, according to the email.

Resilience did not return messages this week.

The leader of the park district’s board, Avis LaVelle, did not return multiple emails and phone messages. LaVelle has been on the park district board for 10 years, and she’s been the president since then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her in February 2019.

The park district’s longtime CEO and superintendent, Michael Kelly, also did not reply to messages. Kelly, who is paid $230,000 a year, has worked for the park district since 2003 and has been the top executive since Emanuel picked him for the job 10 years ago.

According to the confidential records obtained by WBEZ, Kelly received a complaint from a former lifeguard in February 2020.

The park district has declined to provide a copy of that complaint in response to WBEZ’s request under the state’s public records law. WBEZ recently filed a lawsuit against the park district to obtain the complaint and other documents about sexual misconduct that the park district would not make public.

In March 2020, about a month after that complaint to Kelly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office received a similar complaint from another ex-lifeguard who said she was sexually assaulted by “another employee in a more senior position” when she was 17.

The young woman — whose name was deleted from the copy of her letter provided to WBEZ — criticized the park district for its “collective indifference and inaction toward sexual violence in the workplace.”

She said few employees file reports “because there is little faith in the management of the Chicago Park District Lifeguard Service.”

“Employees see how the perpetrators of sexual violence are either getting promoted to management positions or being allowed to continue working at their current positions even after complaints are made about them,” she wrote. “There is what I would call a ‘Code of Silence’ in the Park District in which those in positions of authority will have each other’s backs no matter what happens.”

The woman said the situation represents “a very preventable problem that is being ignored” and she called on Lightfoot to come up with a “better system” for reporting and handling issues of sexual misconduct.

“I urge you to look into this issue further in the hope that someday things will be better,” the young woman told the mayor, offering to discuss the matter with her.

A spokeswoman for the mayor declined to comment Wednesday, citing the pending inspector general’s investigation. After WBEZ’s story on the probe in April, Lightfoot said she was “following the developments quite closely” and urged the park district to finish the investigation quickly.

“Shame on them”

Some women who suffered the harassment and abuse said they continue to be impacted by their summers working in what they described as a toxic environment.

The woman who said she was sexually abused by her boss at a house party then had to work with him as her supervisor for two more years. She lamented that the park district has such high standards for lifeguard training and water safety, “but not of keeping their own lifeguards safe from each other.”

Another woman, who’s now in her late 30s, said her experience decades ago as a lifeguard at a beach on the South Side “shaped my worldview” for the worse. She said she complained to higher-ups about harassment from a much older lifeguard captain who repeatedly cat-called her at a beach and described her as fat.

She said nothing was done in response to her complaint, with a supervisor telling her that the harasser “would never do that.” Instead, she got moved to another beach and quit the park district after that summer, she said.

The woman said she’s since suffered problems with body image and relationships and has “thought about this incident every single day.”

“For a long time, it truly defined my worth,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to be in therapy 20 years later because of a guy who told me something when I was 19. It’s scarring to this day. It happened at an impressionable time.”

Tortorich — the woman who said she was sexually abused twice while lifeguarding more than 40 years ago — said she did not think about what happened to her much until Donald Trump was running for president five years ago and she was triggered when a recording surfaced of him making comments about grabbing women’s genitals.

She recently told her husband and two adult sons about what happened to her long ago.

Now, Tortorich said the park district needs to crack down on violators. She also wants park district leaders and the mayor to acknowledge the harm done to many girls and young women, apologize to them and stop blocking the public release of documents about the problem.

“There’s absolutely no reason for this to happen to anybody,” Tortorich said. “There’s a level of pride when you become a Chicago Park District lifeguard.

“But if they don’t take this portion of what’s happening seriously, shame on them. I can’t imagine how many more women that this happened to in their jobs as lifeguards with the park district.”

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