Chicago schools to overhaul handling of sex abuse complaints

FILE - In this July 16, 2015, file photo, Janice Jackson, chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools, appears at a news conference in Chicago. Federal education officials called Chicago Public Schools' handling of sexual abuse complaints "tragic and inexcusable" and outlined legally-binding corrective steps after a systemic investigation of the nation's third-largest school district.

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Public Schools will overhaul how it handles sexual abuse complaints after a federal investigation found "tragic and inexcusable" problems following student complaints, the U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday.

The agency's Office for Civil Rights called its review — which began in 2015 after student complaints — among the most comprehensive of any major urban school district. Federal officials concluded that the district's management, handling and oversight of sexual harassment violated Title IX, which is a federal law designed to protect students from abuse, harassment and gender-based discrimination.

Under the legally binding remedy that the nation's third-largest school district agreed to, any complaints will be reviewed by a second, independent party. The district also will review the actions of current and former employees and change its Title IX procedures, among other things. Federal officials will monitor the district for three years.

"The Chicago Public Schools have inexcusably failed, for quite some time, to provide their students with the basic protections required by law," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus said in a statement. "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."

Complaints that triggered the federal investigation included one in 2016 in which a female student said a group of boys, including some from her school, raped her inside a vacant building while she was on her way home from school. Another complaint involved a sophomore who alleged that in 2013 her teacher got her drunk and abused her in his car. Before the assault, district officials had received other complaints of alleged harassment by the same teacher. The teacher was later charged and pleaded guilty.

Federal officials found the district mishandled both claims.

The investigation was expanded with federal officials interviewing staff and reviewing documents connected to 400 schools. Overall, the federal investigation involved reviewing 2,800 complaints of student-on-student harassment and 280 complaints involving adults going back to 2012.

The review noted that the district failed to respond quickly to complaints, didn't offer services to alleged victims or notify them of the results of investigations and didn't take steps to provide a safe environment for all students. The district also didn't have a Title IX coordinator from 1999 to 2018, which is required by law, and had poor record-keeping, according to the investigation.

The district acknowledged students didn't get "the comprehensive support they deserved," in a letter sent to families on Thursday and outlined steps that have already taken, including forming a new office to handle complaints and fresh background checks for all staff, vendors and volunteers.

"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," said district CEO Janice Jackson.

The district has been under scrutiny for its handling of sex abuse and harassment cases for years.

In 2018, federal education officials took the unusual step of withholding $4 million in federal grant money citing district failure to provide records on reports of sexual violence against students.

After a Chicago Tribune series that same year, the district created a new agency to handle allegations. That agency received over 600 reports of sexual violence last year, with nearly 500 of them involving student-on-student violence.

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