4 Lifeguards Abused, Assaulted, Harassed Teens at Chicago’s Pools, Beaches: Parks Investigation

Four lifeguards abused, assaulted and harassed girls at Chicago’s pools and beaches, according to the results of an investigation released Tuesday by the Chicago Park District’s watchdog. 

Three of the four lifeguards accused of wrongdoing resigned as a result of the investigation, while Chicago Park District Interim Inspector General Alison Perona recommended the fourth be terminated in connection with the allegations.  

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A second report released Tuesday by the Chicago Park District’s Board of Commissioners found former Superintendent Mike Kelly waited six months after the first complaint of abuse allegations to forward it to the district’s watchdog — and only did so after the mayor’s office sent him a complaint from a second girl alleging she was abused. 

Under fire from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly resigned Oct. 10 and was replaced on an interim basis by Rosa Escareño, who retired in July as commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection after 30 years with the city

The management of the Chicago Park District failed to protect its employees, said Escareño, adding that she “was stunned and horrified” by the results of the probes. 

A culture of abuse was allowed to “fester,” at the Chicago Park District, Escareño said.

“We need to take this opportunity to tear everything apart and figure out how we rebuild it in a way that it does exactly what we intend to do,” Escareno said. “How do we find clarity for the victims or anyone who wants to report any violation of this nature to the park district?”

Avis LaVelle, the president of the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners, told reporters she “sincerely apologized” to the girls and young women who were abused, assaulted and harassed. 

However, LaVelle, who was a top aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, said she would not resign, and blamed Kelly for telling her that he was handling the complaints properly. 

“We were simply dysfunctional in our approach to this investigation,” LaVelle said. “In hindsight, it would have been better for me to step outside of the usual [Office of Inspector General] reporting structure to share with the entire [Chicago Park District] Board earlier even though there was little substantiated evidence.” 

LaVelle said as board president she could not have determined whether the Chicago Park District was operating properly or if Kelly followed the department’s rules. 

“Mistakes were made,” LaVelle said. “It was a dysfunctional investigative process.” 

After the release of the reports, Alds. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and Michele Smith (43rd Ward) renewed their call for LaVelle — and everyone involved in the botched investigation — to resign. 

“She should have been proactive,” Waguespack said. “I am astounded that she is hiding behind” Kelly and others at the Park District. 

It is not enough to focus on the failure of Kelly and others follow the Chicago Park District’s procedures for handling complaints, Smith said. 

“To dismiss more than three decades of systemic and sustained abuse and harassment as simply something not being handled in a ‘timely manner,’ suggests a stunning level of tone deafness and a failure to accept responsibility as [board president] by Ms. LaVelle,” Smith said. 

Also Tuesday, Escareño announced she had fired Alonzo Williams, chief programs officer; Eric Fischer, the assistant director of recreation; and Adam Bueling, manager of the park district’s beaches and pools unit based on the findings of the investigation performed by Valerie Hays of the Arnold & Palmer law firm. 

All three “failed to follow proper reporting requirements upon receiving complaints of alleged sexual misconduct,” according to a park district statement. 

The Chicago Park District will create an Office of Protection to investigate “all allegations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and other prohibited acts.” 

The probe remains ongoing, Chicago Park District officials said. 

Escareño suspended three other employees facing allegations of sexual misconduct last week as recommended by the interim inspector general, officials said. A total of four employees have been suspended in connection with the probe, and another 14 employees have resigned or been terminated since the beginning of the investigation. 

The oldest allegation of wrongdoing detailed as part of the interim inspector general’s report dates back to 2015, while the most recent happened in 2020, according to the report. 

The Parks Department should fire a lifeguard who is accused of assaulting a 17-year-old girl in 2015 and a 21-year-old woman in 2019, Perona recommended. 

WBEZ was the first to report the city had received dozens of complaints of sexual misconduct against lifeguards — some of them girls — going back decades. 

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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