CPS sex abuse findings result in proposals to change Illinois law
CPS sex abuse findings result in proposals to change Illinois law
By Gary Marx, David Jackson, Juan Perez Jr. and Jennifer Smith Richards
June 7, 2018
llinois lawmakers this week introduced a set of legislative proposals and began planning hearings in response to the Chicago Public Schools sexual abuse scandal.
A bill proposal filed Tuesday listed child protection shortfalls highlighted in a Tribune investigative series and outlined more than a dozen changes to state law. Those measures would swiftly revoke the licenses of educators found by districts to have sexually abused children and would make such disciplinary action more transparent to the public.
The proposed legislation also would make it a crime for school employees to have sexual contact with a student regardless of the student’s age. Under current law, sex with a student is legal if he or she is older than 17 and no force is involved.
Separately, state legislators called for a joint Senate and House hearing within the next two weeks.
“We should seize this moment and stop deferring justice. To fail to do so is to fail in our duty to protect and educate our children,” Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said Wednesday.
Over the last decade, Chicago police have investigated more than 500 cases of sexual abuse and violence against students in Chicago public schools, the Tribune investigation found. The Tribune discovered ineffective background checks, failures to alert child welfare agents about abuse allegations, repeated interrogations of student victims and a culture of secrecy that allowed disgraced educators to quietly resign and move to other districts.
Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson has outlined new policies the district plans to pursue in light of the Tribune’s investigation but also stressed the need for revising state laws.
“There are loopholes in our state law that we have to get in front of, and I think that this serves as an opportunity to put those things on the table,” Jackson told reporters this week.
Other state lawmakers also called for action.
“It’s beyond disgusting,” Rep. Greg Harris said of the Tribune’s findings. Harris, the assistant majority leader in the House, said he and five other state legislators from Chicago expect to meet in coming days with Jackson to learn “how they are going to fix this problem.”
Harris said he wants Jackson to provide a list of changes to state laws that are needed “so that we can get solutions in place.”
State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said she was angered by Tribune reports that school employees were playing detective and not immediately reporting allegations of sexual abuse to child welfare investigators, as required by state law.
“The administrators and teachers are bullying these children, these victims, when they come forward,” she said. “They are not respected. They are not believed.”
She also criticized Simeon Career Academy’s handling of criminal background checks on Gerald Gaddy, a volunteer track coach with four felony convictions who went on to rape one 16-year-old student more than 40 times and sexually abused several others.
“It’s so obvious that so many things have been done wrong,” said Flowers, who attended Simeon and whose legislative district includes the school.
In the Simeon case, the Tribune reported, the district’s Law Department both investigated the abuse allegations against Gaddy and used those investigative files to attack the rape victim in court when she filed a lawsuit. National experts called that dual role an obvious conflict of interest.
CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler sent a letter this week to top CPS officials saying his office should take over abuse investigations.
“The CPS law department simply cannot get to the bottom of all sexual misconduct allegations against CPS employees while simultaneously having the job of defending CPS against lawsuits by victims of those very same crimes,” the letter said. “That morass of competing interests makes it impossible to tell whether the law department is working for student victims or trying to limit the district’s legal exposure.”
Meanwhile, Cook County Commissioners Bridget Gainer and Larry Suffredin introduced a resolution Wednesday to direct the Cook County sheriff to examine whether his office could conduct background checks for all school districts in the county. That would take the process out of City Hall and create a separation of powers, the commissioners’ resolution said.
The draft state bill, introduced by Barrington Hills Republican Rep. David McSweeney and DuPage County Democratic Sen. Tom Cullerton, would require some changes at the district level, too.
The bill would allow school staff to interview a student reporting abuse only once and would set guidelines for parental involvement. The Tribune found instances in which students were repeatedly interviewed, which distressed them and risked muddying subsequent law enforcement cases. The proposal also would require districts to remove accused educators from classrooms while they face potential discipline.
One of the more far-reaching changes would put the responsibility for background checks on the state instead of just school districts and require teachers to have a record clear of sexual abuse before they can receive a state license.
McSweeney and Cullerton also want the bill to require the Illinois State Board of Education to complete its investigation of a sex abuse allegation and issue any license sanctions within a year.
“The current system is not working,” McSweeney said. He added that he will seek input from the state schools superintendent but that the State Board of Education “has got a lot of explaining to do” about its yearslong sanctions process and lack of transparency.
The Tribune investigation highlighted the case of former Chicago teacher Stephen Stapanian, who left the district and taught in Florida with a valid Illinois educator license for six years before the state board suspended it. CPS investigators concluded in 2011 that Stapanian had touched the crotch of an eighth-grader and showed students how to access pornography at school. Stapanian denied the allegations.
The draft legislation would improve transparency by amending state law to allow school districts to share internal investigative findings and disciplinary records more easily with other school districts. State law currently prohibits districts from sharing such information after four years have passed.
Jackson on Wednesday acknowledged that CPS should release public statistics about sexual abuse. No public body now discloses how many times CPS students are victims of sexual violence and abuse in schools.
Illinois also does not require the state board to collect data about sexual abuse of students, even though school districts must report the rare instances where a student sexually assaults a school employee. McSweeney and Cullerton’s proposed bill would improve data collection about student abuse.
McSweeney said he expects broad bipartisan support for most of the changes but said legislators may face opposition from teachers unions about sharing personnel and disciplinary records.
State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said she is joining her colleagues in demanding change.
“This is not going to be a partisan issue,” Williams said. “This is not something that we can put on the back burner.”