Chicago Park District Board Chair Avis LaVelle Resigns Amid Lifeguard Sex Abuse Scandal – CBS Chicago
CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago Park District Board chair Avis LaVelle resigned on Wednesday, in the latest fallout from the lifeguard sex abuse scandal.
LaVelle informed the board of her decision to resign at the end of Wednesday’s board meeting.
“Let me be clear, I am not being forced out. Mayor Lightfoot did not ask me to resign. She has been resolute in her support for me both publicly and privately, and for that I am profoundly grateful,” she said.
Nonetheless, her resignation comes only after at least three aldermen called for her to step down, in the wake of a scathing independent investigator’s report found district management failed to properly investigate widespread claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and bullying involving Park District lifeguards.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) was the first alderman to call for LaVelle and other Park District officials to resign after it was revealed the district didn’t take steps to begin a proper investigation until WBEZ Public Radio first reported on the scandal in April.
“When we have systems like this that are really poorly run; that have a culture of abuse, we need to root it out,” Waguespack said, “and I think it starts at the top – but we need to make sure it goes all the way to the bottom.”
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) also have called for LaVelle to step down.
“Chicago Park District needs new leadership that is up to the task of making our parks safe and creating structures of accountability,” Rodrigeuz-Sanchez posted last week on Twitter.
In announcing her resignation, Lavelle apologized for the scandal that also led to the ouster of Park District CEO Mike Kelly last month.
“I am deeply sorry for the culture of abuse and harassment that was allowed to fester in the beaches and pools division of the Chicago Park District. It is apparent that this went on many years, even decades before I joined the park district board. I take responsibility because it came to light on my watch,” she said.
Scathing reports released last week detailed years of abuse in the aquatics division of the parks, describing a “code of silence” within the district.
According to an independent investigator’s report, Kelly took no action until six months after he had received a complaint about abuse from the parents of a female lifeguard.
Tuesday’s report by the Arnold & Porter Law Firm and a separate report by the district’s inspector general detailed multiple sexual assault claims by Park District lifeguards and what the Park District called “egregious mishandling of complaints” by management – as well as organizational failures that made it so the victims were not protected.
As CBS 2’s Tara Molina reported, the reports detail scathing accusations of everything from sexual harassment to bullying among Chicago lifeguards, One woman called it a “culture” of violence and claimed there was a “code of silence.”
Read The Reports Below (Warning: Reports contain offensive language and detailed descriptions of assault and abuse)
Report By Park District Office Of The Inspector General
Report By Arnold & Porter Law Firm
LaVelle has previously said she apologized to the girls and young women who were assaulted, abused, and harassed; but before Wednesday had said she wouldn’t step down.
She also pointed the finger at Kelly for failing to immediately launch a full investigation into complaints of widespread sexual assault, abuse, and harassment of girls and young women who worked as lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches, while assuring LaVelle and others that he was handling complaints properly.
“I was assured repeatedly by former Superintendent Mike Kelly throughout the process that management was taking corrective steps to address these problems systemwide,” LaVelle said last week. “What I never expected was that it would take so long to get to the point of holding accountable those who are responsible.”
However, she also acknowledged she shares in the blame for the district’s handling of the scandal.
“It is not acceptable that any of this continued to happen. It is not acceptable that this started long before any of us, that I’m aware of were, here. It’s all unacceptable, and I accept my responsibility as a person who was sitting in this chair at the time that this was exposed,” she said. “I can’t be responsible for the people who came before me. I can be responsible for my part in it, and I have accepted that. Mistakes were made. It was a dysfunctional investigative process. It was a dysfunctional response process.”
LaVelle’s resignation comes after interim Park District CEO and General Manager Rosa Escareño last week asked for the resignation of Park District Chief Programming Officer Alonzo Williams, who was notified by Kelly about a sexual misconduct complaint as early as August 2019 and did not take corrective action. Escareño also fired two senior managers – Assistant Director of Recreation Eric Fischer and Beaches and Pools Unit Manager Adam Bueling – for also failing to take proper action with regard to sexual misconduct allegations.
The latter two top managers, were both were placed on emergency suspension last month, based on information Kelly received from the inspector general.
Kelly resigned as Park District superintendent last month, after Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanded the Park District board fire him for his handling of the scandal.
Kelly’s resignation came just weeks after Chicago Park District Inspector General Elaine Little resigned amid her office’s ongoing investigation into widespread sexual harassment targeting female lifeguards.
Little’s resignation came after WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio reported Little was herself under an investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” upon leaving a post as director of investigations at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center three years ago.
In August, Kelly said the investigation by Little’s office had resulted in disciplinary action against 42 employees since the probe into harassment among lifeguards began last March.
A total of 14 Park District employees have now been fired or prevented for rehire since this started, while four employees still under emergency suspension as investigations continue.
The two reports went into detail about multiple specific allegations of sexual assault and abuse, as well as harassment and hazing. There are a total of 27 open investigations right now.
The OIG report details four allegations that date back as far as 2015.
The report alleges that year, 20-year-old natatorium instructor sexually assaulted a 17-year-old female colleague at a party, and the victim was taunted and mocked about the assault by her coworkers the next day. The victim said she did not report the assault because she was ashamed and afraid, and had no faith that Park District supervisors would properly handle the complaint given the culture of the Aquatics Department.
Investigators later learned of another allegation involving the same instructor and another female lifeguard in 2019. This female lifeguard, 21 at the time, also said she did not report the incident because she did not think anyone would believe her, the report said. The Inspector General recommended that the instructor be fired and be designated as “do not rehire.”
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In another complaint dating back to 2016, a then 18-year-old male lifeguard is accused of sexually assaulting a female colleague after offering to driving her home when she became intoxicated at a party. This victim was also mocked by her coworkers when she returned to work, the report said. The report added that the following summer, the same male lifeguard harassed her and gave her undesirable work assignments in what she believed was retaliation.
The female lifeguard declined to file a police report, and the male lifeguard was first placed on emergency suspension and then resigned, the report said. He declined to be interviewed for the investigation, but the OIG recommended that he too be placed on the “do not rehire” list.
Another 16-year-old female lifeguard reported that in 2020, she began a consensual intimate relationship with an 18-year-old male lifeguard and provided nude photos to him – only to have them shared widely on social media. This female lifeguard also reported the male lifeguard later sexually assaulted her in his car while driving her home.
Another female lifeguard, 19, also filed a complaint with the Park District claiming the same male lifeguard repeatedly harassed her, hectored other employees, and yelled at parkgoers. This lifeguard also went on to resign, and was recommended for the “do not hire” list.
The fourth complaint in the OIG report is the only one that has resulted in criminal charges so far. The report said this past August, investigators learned that a 32-year-old male lifeguard supervisor engaged in a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female lifeguard under his supervision.
Authorities announced last week that the supervisor, Mauricio Ramirez, 32, has been charged with one felony count each of criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
Cook County prosecutors said Ramirez was the girl’s supervisor as she was working as a lifeguard this summer, and was well aware of her age when he began talking to her in July, when she told him she was a 16-year-old junior in high school. Prosecutors said, on two occasions between July and September, Ramirez picked the girl up from her school in his car, and later pulled over and sexually assaulted her, before taking her home.
In August, he also drove her home from work, and on the drive home, he sexually assaulted her, prosecutors said.
In response to the OIG report, Escareño moved immediately to ensure the one male lifeguard still working for the Park District would be fired, and none of the four would be hired by the Park District in the future.
Meanwhile, the Arnold & Porter report went into further detail about multiple allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct among Park District lifeguards. The law firm said it found sufficient evidence that Kelly violated the Park District policy on sexual harassment by failing to report a complaint to the OIG until six months after he had first received it.
Williams, Fischer, and Bueling were likewise accused of failing to take proper action.
The complaint in this case came from a female lifeguard who reported that she was subjected to sexual harassment, assault, hazing, bullying, and other abuse while working at the Oak Street Beach.
The law firm report said on Aug. 30, 2019, Kelly received an email from the father of a female lifeguard – who was described as a friend of Kelly’s and someone with whom he did business. The father advised that Kelly should send someone to remove a “fight song” that was posted on the wall of the lifeguard trailer at the Oak Street Beach “before press or somebody runs with it.”
The female lifeguard’s mother went on to detail the allegations. She said the lifeguards were required to memorize the “fight song,” which is composed of a litany of graphic vulgarities, and chant it as they did push-ups every morning. The mother also said lifeguards – most of them female – were regularly thrown in a five-foot-deep hole in the sand where they were degraded by having sand thrown on them.
Lifeguards were also threatened with hazing – involving such indignities as having to stand on a ledge for five hours straight, the mother reported. She further reported that her daughter was thrown against a locker by an older male guard, and that lifeguards were given mocking, degrading awards at a staff banquet – which were so humiliating that one young woman went into the restroom and cried for the rest of the night.
The law firm report said Kelly responded to these complaints by forwarding the email to Williams with the message. “Take a look and let’s discuss.” The law firm said it found no evidence that any further action was taken at that point.
More than five months later on Feb. 7, 2020, the female lifeguard emailed Kelly and Fischer herself with the details of what she said had happened the summer before – when she was 17 years old. Her own report lined up with what her mother had reported the prior August, but she broke down more detail – including the names of about seven lifeguards who she said had participated in the misconduct.
The young woman also reported hazing rituals in which rookie lifeguards – who were usually underage – were forced to drink alcoholic beverages while singing the vulgar fight song repeatedly in push-up position until getting all the words right. She reported that pints of beer were taped to each rookie lifeguard’s hands, and when she refused to drink them, a guard tried to force a bottle of vodka down her throat.
The young woman also reported being verbally abused with degrading names and other remarks, hit on the back of the neck “extremely hard” by a male lifeguard, and being threatened with retaliation if she did not drink alcohol or smoke marijuana, the law firm report said. She also detailed the practices of female lifeguards being thrown in a hole and having sand thrown at them, and the mocking awards at the end-of-the-season banquet.
The young woman expressed concern that someone could be killed or permanently injured by “the stupidity of the so-called professional lifeguards,” that a girl could be sexually assaulted by lifeguards who are “high and not in the correct mental state,” and that the abuse could drive someone to suicide, the report said.
Kelly sent the young woman’s complaint to the OIG on March 19, 2020 – 41 days after he received it and six months after he first heard from the young woman’s parents, the law form report said.
The law firm report also another female lifeguard who had been working with the Park District for six years sent a complaint to Mayor Lori Lightfoot about her experience on March 6, 2020, and sent the same complaint to Bueling three days later. The Mayor’s office forward the complaint to Kelly on March 19, 2020, the report said.
In her complaint, this young woman reported she was sexually assaulted by a male lifeguard five years earlier when she was 17 and he was about 20, and was mocked for it by her coworkers afterward.
The young woman wrote, “there is a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District – from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape,” and reported that sexually inappropriate comments and jokes were common even during work hours. She also described a code of silence within the Park District in which no one spoke up about the inappropriate comments and there was little support for those who wanted to file reports.
“Employees see how the perpetrators of sexual violence are either getting promoted to management positions or being allowed to continue working at their current positions even after complaints are made about them,” she wrote as quoted in the law firm report. “When complaints do get filed, repercussions are often mild. Most often employees are transferred to another location for a few days as ‘punishment’ but then prance right back where they came from.”
Based on the response by Kelly and the other Park District officials, the report concluded they failed to take proper action with regard to the female lifeguards’ complaints.
“We have a responsibility to take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, and those in power failed in that duty and for that,” Escareño said. “On behalf of the Chicago Park District, I am sorry.”
The Park District said it will utilize the findings from the reports to overhaul policies and procedures for investigating complaints of sexual harassment or assault. The plan calls for a new Office of Protection that will investigate sexual harassment and misconduct and all other prohibited acts.
LaVelle’s full announcement Tuesday is below.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot released this statement:
“I thank Ms. LaVelle for her decades-long service to the City of Chicago.
I have full confidence in the Chicago Park District Board’s ability to move forward. Per state statute and further detailed in the Chicago Park District Code, the Vice President of the Board, Tim King, will assume all powers and duties as interim President of the Park District Board. Ms. LaVelle’s permanent successor will be named soon.
As the Park District moves forward in the days and months ahead, I am confident that important and essential work of restoring trust between the Park District and Chicago families will continue. The Board, the City of Chicago and the Park District, with the leadership of Interim General Superintendent Rosa Escareño, will leverage their collective strengths to protect patrons, strengthen organizational culture, and continue delivering the high-quality programs and environments that Chicagoans expect.
LaVelle previously served as the Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Northstar Lottery Group – which handled external affairs activities for Northstar and the Illinois Lottery.
LaVelle also runs the form A. LaVelle Consulting Services, which she founded in 2003. The firm helped lead grassroots campaigns that led to the reform of payday loan shop practices and electric energy rate deregulation, among other things.
LaVelle also served as press secretary to retired Mayor Richard M. Daley in the early 1990s – handling crisis communications for the 1992 Chicago Flood and the planned Lake Calumet Airport. She went on to serve as National Pres Secretary for the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign in 1992, and served as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs under President Bill Clinton.