Investigations

10 questions for the CPS Inspector General as he wades into the student sex abuse scandal

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

In the past year, Chicago Board of Education Inspector General Nicholas Schuler has led investigations into improper admissions at selective enrollment programs and the rehiring of problem educators by charters and contract schools. But his office is poised to take on an even broader role: leading the investigative charge into student complaints of sexual misconduct by educators and staffers.

Last week, Schuler wrote a letter asking that the inspector general’s office take on the role, and, today, board President Frank Clark said he is recommending that the district “specifically empower” the OIG’s office when it comes to student victims. It is the latest in a swift series of policy changes, including spot background checks, districtwide training plans, and a $500,000 contract for former Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Maggie Hickey to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review. The changes come in response to a Chicago Tribune series that spotlighted widespread lapses in how schools—and CPS at large—report abuse cases to police and address predatory behavior of educators, coaches, vendors and volunteers.

Chalkbeat asked Schuler, 50, a former police officer and attorney, how he plans to tackle two Herculean assignments: current reviews of student complaints as well as a historic review of cases going back to 2000, a priority CPS announced for the first time today.

A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation with Schuler is below.

What resources is CPS going to give your office to do this work?

That’s the big question. This is all happening rapidly—this was done without a lot of brass tacks. In my initial conversations, (CPS officials) are saying they are promising us adequate resources, and I believe them when they say that. So that’s first: to figure out exactly what we need, what resources are required to do the job. They’ve asked us to do two big jobs here: what we asked for in a letter last week, and then the separate piece is for us to do a review back to 2000. That is a separate, independent ask. We’re going to need dedicated resources for each prong.

That is a huge ask going back to 2000. How many cases might that be?

I don’t know.  We haven’t had these sorts of discussions yet. We don’t know the cases they’ve had or the current workload. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but that is the linchpin: If we don’t have the resources to do the two jobs, they won’t be done properly.

How many people currently work in your office full-time? 19.

How many more people will you ask for? I’m hesitant to put a number on it, but if I’m going to be conservative, I’d say 10, or probably more, people. It’s investigators, some attorney support, they need to be specialized people, plus specialized training. We haven’t even had discussions on how full the caseload is, and we don’t have a full handle yet on the resources they’ve dedicated to it.

Of your 19 people, how many are investigators? 10. We have three people who are in the performance analysis unit, two administrators, and three attorneys.

Do you plan to start your investigations where CPS left off? Or will you use your existing hotline to start use new cases? Or both? The IG already has a hotline: Will we use that as a central place for people to call or will we set up a separate hotline? There are so many unanswered questions. The hard work of answering those questions is underway right now.

What is your sense of the role the union plays? What level of cooperation do you expect? Working with the union has not really ever been an issue in our investigations. It has not hindered our recommendations.

What is your next step? The immediate step is to figure out the exact resources we need, and then figure out if it will be one person’s job to oversee these investigations—probably a chief. We have to figure out the paperwork; once we have a handle on that we can start going out.

CPS is not the only institution that has grappled with these issues. What do you think we have learned in terms of handling them?  I’m not in a position to comment on any of this except that we are in process.

Why do you feel independence is so important here? Parents, families, people—they need to know that no one is turning a blind eye to sexual predators.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.