A joint Senate and House hearing was held June 20 in Chicago in response to a recently released Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed sexual abuse and assaults had been frequently mishandled over a 10-year period in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). According to the Chicago Tribune, police investigated 523 reports of sexual abuse and rape at CPS over a 10-year period; however, the exact number of cases is unknown, because CPS does not consistently or formally track child abuse by its employees. In fact, it is highly likely that much of this material would have remained hidden because it was not until the Tribune threatened to file a lawsuit against CPS that the school district divulged the information.
Legislators heard testimony from survivors, as well as CPS and Illinois State Board of Education officials, child welfare advocates and union representatives. Lawmakers praised the bravery of two former CPS students for coming forward to testify to their experiences, but took CPS officials to task for what is now known to be a widespread, systemic failure by Chicago Public Schools administrators and teachers to adhere to current laws mandating background checks and a failure to follow required investigatory and reporting procedures.
Members of the legislative panel expressed outrage over the way school officials handled abuse allegations, after witnesses described an intimidating, humiliating and traumatizing investigatory process. Confirmation that the survivors received no follow-up counseling or support from the school district was also strongly criticized by legislators.
Witnesses offered suggestions on where legislative response is warranted, underscoring the necessity of following through on the required background checks and re-checking employees. The Chicago Tribune found that “At least nine of the 72 Chicago school workers identified by the Tribune as being accused of abusing students since 2008 had prior arrests related to alleged sexual offenses involving children, or drug, weapons, assault or theft allegations that signaled they could be a threat to children.”
Also recommended were policy changes to increase the frequency and ease of information sharing between Illinois school districts, as well as more frequent training for school employees on their state-mandated requirement to report abuse or assault.
Advocates also stressed the need for any child abuse allegation to be investigated by those trained and experienced in handling these types of serious, sensitive matters, to ensure no student is further humiliated, intimidated or traumatized during the course of an investigation.
Lawmakers stated during the June 20 hearing that the dialogue on how school districts and the General Assembly can help better protect students from abuse and assault will continue and likely expand into other regions in Illinois.