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Two female former lifeguards have sued the Chicago Park District alleging they suffered sexual abuse from supervisors when they were minors working at city beaches.

Manuel Martinez

Two former lifeguards sue the Chicago Park District, saying they suffered sexual abuse when they were minors

Two women who used to work at public beaches have sued the Chicago Park District, alleging they suffered “childhood sexual abuse” from male supervisors as underage lifeguards in the years before widespread accusations emerged in 2021, according to court documents.

The cases filed in Cook County Circuit Court on Monday could add to the legal tab from the sexual misconduct scandal for the park district — which already has paid out nearly $2 million to three other female lifeguards who have sued or threatened to take the taxpayer-funded agency to court.

One of the new, anonymous “Jane Doe” plaintiffs accused three male supervisors — known in the lingo of Chicago’s beaches and pools as “captains” and “mates” — of sexual abuse and workplace retaliation when she was a minor with a summer job from 2017 through 2019 at Calumet Beach and Rainbow Beach, both on the South Side.

The other complainant who sued Monday allegedly experienced “suicidal ideations” after repeatedly being abused by two male mates at Oak Street Beach, the popular, sandy stretch of the lakefront’s Gold Coast.

The two new lawsuits raise the total number of female former lifeguards who have filed claims over sexual misconduct at the beaches and pools to at least six.

WBEZ reported in September that the park district board quietly had approved settlement agreements with three other female former lifeguards. Two of them reached out-of-court settlements with the park district, while the third had sued.

And in June, a fourth ex-lifeguard also sued the park district, its longtime former chief executive Michael Kelly and a former Humboldt Park supervisor who last year admitted committing sex crimes against teenage employees. Court records show the civil case is pending.

In April 2021, WBEZ first revealed that top park district officials were aware of widespread accusations of systemic sexual harassment, abuse and assault against female employees in the agency’s Aquatics Department. The stories led to the resignations of Kelly and parks board President Avis LaVelle — and promises of reform from the new leadership appointed in the wake of the negative coverage.

A spokesperson for the park district said Tuesday they do not comment on active litigation.

But park district officials noted the three settlement payments and the previous pending court case in a bond disclosure document filed on Nov. 15, adding: “The outcome of the lawsuit and the ultimate effect on the operations or financial condition of the District cannot be determined at this time.”

The attorney for the plaintiffs in the two newly filed cases is Bridget Duignan, who negotiated an out-of-court deal for another former lifeguard for nearly $1 million earlier this year, according to park district and court records.

“The park district just failed to protect the women and young girls who are working for them and, for decades, promoted a culture of sexual misconduct and retaliation,” Duignan told WBEZ.

Both of Duignan’s clients in the new cases allege they were subjected to a form of workplace retaliation known at Chicago’s beaches as “rotting.” It was described in the court filings as “the requirement to work long hours in undesirable places without a break or lunch.”

In one case, the plaintiff said she was assigned to work on a ledge “for at least 7 hours at a time.” The other complainant alleged she was forced to sit “in a boat in Lake Michigan in the hot sun for an extended period.”

Duignan also wrote, “‘Rotting’ was a method used for many years by captains and mates to punish lifeguards who reject sexual advances, to force lifeguards to go to parties after hours and drink when they did not want to drink, to influence lifeguards to abide by a ‘Code of Silence,’ and to stay quiet when they wished to complain about how poorly they were treated.”

The plaintiff who worked at the beaches on the South Side said a captain and two mates engaged in “inappropriate touching, grabbing, and attempted kissing,” while one of the supervisors left “sexually explicit notes in her locker inviting her to be sexually intimate with him” in the summer of 2017.

When she rebuffed the advances, she said the supervisors — who had control over her work schedule — subjected her to being “rotted,” and the abuse continued and escalated, according to court records.

The other plaintiff alleges she was working at Oak Street Beach in July 2019 when a supervisor there “inappropriately touched Jane Doe, grabbed her, and pushed her into a cement wall.”

The following month, she said, another supervisor “inappropriately touched and grabbed Jane Doe and when she fought back, he slammed her into a guard trailer.”

As in the other case at the South Side beaches, rejected sexual advances allegedly led one Oak Street Beach supervisor to engage in rotting against the female lifeguard. She also accuses supervisors of increasingly abusing her after she “began to stand up for herself” and calling her misogynistic names and other insults instead of addressing her by name.

“As a result of the childhood sexual abuse and the verbal abuse sustained by her, Jane Doe began to have suicidal ideations,” according to court records. “When the mates found out about her suicidal ideations she was told that if she killed herself, it would not matter and the lifeguards would laugh about it.”

In both of the newly filed cases, the complaints provide only the first names of the accused supervisors, and none of the supervisors are named individually as defendants.

Both suits allege that the park district officials knew about rotting and other workplace abuses but failed in their obligation to properly oversee the beach supervisors.

Duignan wrote that officials were “aware of a toxic workplace culture which included the sexual abuse, the sexual assault, and the sexual harassment of junior lifeguards at its various beaches by captains and mates.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

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