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Two Top Chicago Park District Managers Suspended Amid Probe Of Sexual Harassment, Abuse Of Lifeguards

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Two high-level managers at the Chicago Park District have been suspended, and dozens of other staffers have been hit with disciplinary action, amid an ongoing investigation into widespread sexual harassment targeting female lifeguards.

Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly said that probe by the agency's inspector general has resulted in disciplinary action against 42 employees since the investigation began last March.

Two top managers, the district's assistant director of beaches and pools, and the beaches and pools manager, both were placed on emergency suspension last Friday, based on information Kelly received from the inspector general. Both will remain on suspension until the inspector general's investigation is completed.

Meantime, two other employees were terminated and barred from future employment with the district, six resigned and were placed on the district's "do not hire" list, nine were suspended, five remain on emergency suspension, and 18 received written reprimands.

"Of these 42 cases, nine are directly related to the Office of Inspector General's ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct and abuse within the unit. The remaining violations are unrelated to the investigation and being handled through the District's normal disciplinary procedures," the Park District said in a news release.

Kelly declined to go into details of the investigation, which is ongoing, and said the inspector general has three other investigations to complete before a final report is published, possibly next month.

"My commitment is, if there is a criminal charge brought, I will be in the courtroom with you. I will do anything I can, and my office will do anything it can to support. When you're trying to root this out we have to send a message. If it's got to go criminal, it's got to go criminal," Kelly said.

The inspector general's probe – first disclosed by WBEZ – began in March 2020, when Kelly turned over a complaint he received from a former lifeguard, who described a toxic environment at Oak Street Beach, accusing fellow lifeguards of subjecting her and others to sexual harassment, and sexual and physical abuse. She also reported witnessing rampant drug and alcohol use by fellow lifeguards.

"I've committed to this from day one. My commitment to that young woman, that family, all these complaints is rooted out, and I'm not going to stop," Kelly said.

Kelly did not turn that letter over to the inspector general until six weeks after he received it, and on Monday he defended his decision, saying he first turned over the complaint to his management team.

"That is actually quite normal to ask your management team to look into it first. We do investigations all the time. It's my word, I guess, against anybody, but that investigation started the day I took that call," he said. "I always knew this was going to the inspector general. I always knew it. Why? There's over 1,000 lifeguards in my unit, over 1,000. I knew that wasn't going to be rooted out just with management, but I had to give management the first bite of the apple, the first crack at this."

Despite public outcry over his decision to wait six weeks before turning over the investigation to the inspector general, Kelly said he's confident he has Mayor Lightfoot's support.

"You'd better believe she's on me about rooting this out. She's not playing around with this, nobody is. The mayor and I are of like mind on this. No one is going to tolerate this. No one is going to tolerate this. I cannot stress this enough," he said. "This abuse, this activity, this harassment – I face people every day in my personal life that I love and care about, that have gone through it. The people who need to know, know. I have look them every day in the eye that they've gone through it. So I'm not going to rest. … I started this, I'm going to finish it."

Kelly thanked the whistleblower who filed that complaint, and a second woman who sent a separate complaint to Mayor Lori Lightfoot six weeks after the first woman's complaint, accusing a more senior employee of sexually assaulting her when she was 17.

"We are now able to uncover a culture that clearly began decades ago. Their bravery has helped us put systems in place that will encourage people to break their silence and facilitate a healthy workplace, not only in our beaches but our pools, and throughout the district. We have all of them a debt of gratitude," Kelly said.

Kelly also said he hopes the disciplinary action the district is taking will show employees "we do have your back" when they blow the whistle on misconduct.

He noted that, last week, after receiving an anonymous tip, five lifeguards were found drinking in a beach house on city time, after beaches were closed due to heavy storms. One has resigned, and the other four have been suspended.

"Stupid has no bounds. Stupid has no bounds," Kelly said.

Kelly said the district also is creating a new Office of Protection "to serve as an intake point for verification, assessment, and assignment of complaints, as well as concerns related to harassment, bullying, and workplace hostility."

The Park District also has added more managers to lakefront and approximately 1,700 employees have gone through sexual harassment training.

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