The state is considering launching its own investigation into Chicago Public Schools’ handling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases by its employees, the state Board of Education’s general counsel told state lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday on sexual abuse in the school district.
An extensive public inquiry by the Illinois State Board of Education would mark the second state investigation of CPS this year. The first looked at CPS’ special education program, finding that a recent overhaul violated federal special education laws. The state board voted to appoint a monitor who will have final say on key matters related to special education.
The House education committee hearing in Chicago was prompted by a Chicago Tribune investigation that found the school district looked into more than 400 reports of school employees sexually violating students since 2011. The Tribune also found that the district failed to protect children from sexual abuse because of widespread, systemic problems.
The hearing started with the emotional testimony of two victims of sexual misconduct whose cases were detailed by the Tribune.
Morgan Aranda, now 22, said she was traumatized by the reaction of school administrators when she told them, at age 14, that she had been kissed and groped by a teacher. Aranda attended Walter Payton College Prep.
“I was pulled from class to sit alone in a room with an old man who asked, not how I felt or what they could do to make me feel safe in my school again, but what I was wearing when I had been assaulted,” Aranda said.
Tamara Reed said the harassment she was subjected to as an eighth-grader at Black Magnet Elementary has had a lasting impact. She is now a junior at Lane Tech College Prep.
“I struggle to connect with people and to trust them,” she said. “I constantly wonder if the people around me mean well or mean me harm.”
CPS CEO Janice Jackson did not attend the hearing, though lawmakers had invited her and set aside a seat for her. State Rep. Steven Reick (R-Woodstock) said he could not believe that Jackson was not there taking responsibility.
Jadine Chou, CPS head of safety and security, started her testimony by apologizing to the two young woman.
“Nothing is more important to all of us than keeping our children safe,” she said. “While we have taken steps in the past to strengthen our protocols, our training, our policies, we do recognize that there are things we need to do still yet.”
Chou also told legislators that Mayor Rahm Emanuel instructed CPS officials to “spare no resource” when he was briefed on CPS sexual misconduct cases last month.
She and other CPS officials told lawmakers that the school district was already taking numerous steps to make sure the systemic lapses aren’t repeated. Among the steps being taken by CPS are refreshing all criminal background checks of employees, partnering with Children’s Advocacy Center to train staff on best practices to prevent abuse, and handing over investigations to the school district’s inspector general.
Matt Lyons, head of human resources for CPS, also told lawmakers that the school district is looking into punishing adults who knew about the abuse and did not take the proper steps.
“We are looking at the people around that abuser to make sure that anybody that had word of it, had suspicion, reported it, called DCFS [Illinois Department of Children and Family Services], investigated it properly,” he said. “We have expanded what we do around investigations to not just look at an alleged bad actor, but to make sure other people are not complicit.”
These steps did not placate some outraged lawmakers.
“How do we trust you from here with our children?” state Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) told CPS officials. “It’s obvious that plenty of laws were broken.”
Lawmakers also heard from state education and child welfare officials. Legislators already have introduced several bills to address some of the systemic failures highlighted in the Tribune report.