Chicago schools agree to federal oversight of how it handles sexual abuse and harassment probes

Sept. 12, 2019
U.S. Education Department says Chicago schools "have inexcusably failed to provide their students with the basic protections required by law."

The Chicago school district has entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to carry out extensive reforms so that it can better protect students from sexual assault and abuse.

The department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said in a news release that Chicago Public Schools' "management, handling, and oversight of complaints of student-on-student and adult-on-student sexual harassment has violated Title IX."

"The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have inexcusably failed, for quite some time, to provide their students with the basic protections required by law," says Kenneth L. Marcus, assistant education secretary for civil rights. "I am glad that CPS has now agreed to make a number of serious, substantive changes to come into compliance with Title IX. These issues must be addressed to ensure that all students in Chicago Public Schools have an opportunity to learn in a safe educational environment free from the threat of sexual harassment or sexual assault."

Based on the deficiencies in the school district's Title IX procedures and in its handling of complaints of sexual misconduct, OCR is requiring Chicago to take the following actions:

  • Provide complainants who believe the district mishandled their complaints of sexual misconduct with the opportunity to receive a second, independent review of those complaints
  • Review the actions of current and former district employees who failed to take appropriate responsive action to reports of sexual misconduct, and as appropriate, take responsive action concerning those employees
  • Revise its Title IX structure to ensure that the Title IX Coordinator has full authority to effectively coordinate the district's efforts to comply with Title IX
  • Develop a comprehensive process for responding to all complaints of sex discrimination and fully document responsive actions taken; and
  • Change the district's Title IX procedures to ensure impartial investigation of sexual misconduct complaints, including a requirement that attorneys involved in a Title IX investigation recuse themselves from handling the same case against the district.

The federal action against Chicago schools had its roots In May 2015 and November 2016, when the OCR received two individual complaints alleging that the district failed to respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault of students by both teachers and other students.

OCR opened investigations into the incidents, and also initiated a districtwide investigation into how school officials dealt with complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual assault. The probe concluded that Chicago's Title IX investigations were inadequate, unreliable, and often conducted by untrained staff, the education department says.

"OCR found that CPS failed to respond promptly and equitably to complaints, did not provide services and remedies to the complainants, did not notify the complainants of investigation outcomes, and did not take effective action to provide a safe environment for all students," the education department said. "In many instances, the district did not respond adequately to complaints that district-affiliated adults engaged in sexual harassment, assault or grooming of students. Furthermore, CPS did not have a Title IX coordinator from 1999 to December 2018, and its poor recordkeeping made it impossible to coordinate its Title IX responsibilities."

The Chicago Tribune reports that the OCR investigation of city schools intenstified after the newspaper published articles documenting more than 500 police reports of sexual assault or abuse of a child inside a Chicago public school during the prior decade, and uncovered child-protection failures that extended from neighborhood schools to the district’s downtown offices and the state capital.

“The failures of Chicago Public Schools were widespread, glaring and heartbreaking," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement to the Tribune. "Too many innocent young students suffered because adults didn’t do their jobs. We will continue to work to ensure every student can learn in a safe and nurturing environment, and we will continue to hold schools who fail their students accountable.”

Chicago Schools CEO Janice Jackson informed the school community about the OCR agreement in an email. She says the district has an action plan in place that addresses many of the OCR's critical findings.

"Since 2018, we have left no stone unturned and taken significant steps toward improving Title IX compliance," Jackson says. Among those:

•The CPS Office of Student Protections and Title IX has been established to coordinate the district's response to allegations of discrimination, harassment and abuse and to provide students with the supports they need to heal.

•The district has re-checked the backgrounds of all staff, vendor employees, volunteers, and coaches who regularly work in schools and improved the centralized background check process to ensure that all adults who come in contact with students have recently completed a detailed background check.

•For the past two years, and going forward, staff receive annual, mandatory training on the role they play in protecting children. 

•To ensure students understand the signs of abuse and the resources provided to them, the district has launched awareness campaigns in schools and created a Student Bill of Rights, which was provided to students when they returned to class this month.

•To ensure that allegations of adult-on-student abuse are investigated in a manner that eliminates any perceived conflict of interest, the district has transferred the responsibility of investigating allegations of sexual abuse to the Office of the Inspector General and transferred the responsibility of investigating all other student harm cases involving adults to the Office of Student Protections and Title IX. All adults accused of abuse are immediately removed from schools pending the completion of an investigation.

"While we have made significant progress, we will not be satisfied until I and every CPS parent believes we have created a safe and supportive district culture," Jackson says. "As CEO, I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure our district is free of all forms of harassment, abuse, and discrimination."

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