CHICAGO - Chicago Public Schools officials have reached settlements with the families of three former special education students who reported similar cases of sexual assault by classmates in their schools’ bathrooms.
The school system aggressively fought the complaints in court, taking one to trial and another to the verge of trial before agreeing to payoffs this month.
One of the lawsuits, filed by a boy’s family anonymously as John Doe in 2016, was into the second week of its trial in front of a Cook County jury when the district negotiated a $1 million settlement, said Rafael Lázaro, the family’s attorney. The Board of Education unanimously approved that resolution at its monthly meeting Wednesday.
"There is a sense obviously that money can’t replace what happened," Lázaro said. But family members "are happy that the process is over and they’re looking forward to actually providing the services that their child needs with the funding that’s going to come.
He added: "I wish [CPS] had come to the table much sooner than this because the family suffered through this, and they had to fight them and had to show a lot of grit for their child."
CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the district "firmly believes that students who are impacted as a result of a legally-recognized failure on the district’s part should be compensated in a reasonable manner that will remedy injuries to the student." The tentative settlements resolve the lawsuits "in a way that is fair to the student and to the taxpayers who fund the district," she said in a statement.
The boy at the center of the case that came before the board Wednesday was 12 years old and in 6th grade when a bigger student in 7th grade, also in special education, allegedly sexually assaulted him in a Jordan Community Elementary School bathroom in Rogers Park in September 2014. The student, who is on the autism spectrum and has a learning disability, reported the incident to his parents immediately, Lázaro said.
He had an Individualized Education Program — a document that lays out federally mandated services based on each special education student’s unique needs — that called for supervision at all times, a requirement the family alleged was not met when a teacher sent him to the bathroom alone with the other boy.
Lázaro said the boy now has post-traumatic stress disorder along with his cognitive and physical disabilities, by which he communicates at a kindergarten level and walks slowly with an awkward gait.
"I couldn’t be prouder of this family," Lázaro said. "They not only stood up for their child but part of their motivation was that this cannot possibly happen again. … These are the most vulnerable populations."
The case closely mirrors another that was assigned a trial judge last week, in which a boy’s family accused CPS of failing to follow his IEP, which also called for supervision to the bathroom when he was allegedly assaulted by a classmate at Bogan Computer Technical High School in 2016. Just as it did with the case that settled this month, CPS has fought to dismiss the complaint, going as far as calling the boy’s testimony self-serving and casting doubt as to whether an assault had even occurred.
Carolyn Daley, that family’s attorney, said that case and another nearly identical one in which a different boy was allegedly assaulted by the same student at Bogan eight months later, settled this week. Tentative terms of the agreements weren’t immediately disclosed. They’re expected to be up for school board approval in March.
"It’s a good resolution for my clients," Daley said. "It gives them some closure and allows them to move forward, and more importantly they hope the board changes its policies and procedures so this doesn’t happen to another kid.
"They’re disappointed in the way Chicago Public Schools defend these cases. … The treatment of victims, and the board and their attorneys fighting these cases tooth and nail, shaming and blaming victims, attempting to blame sexual assault as consensual, it’s unfortunate."
The boy’s mother, who requested anonymity for her family’s privacy, said she’d like to see CPS better protect students moving forward so more kids aren’t hurt.
"I hope the board recognizes the impact this has had on my son and our family as well as other victims and their families whose children have been sexually assaulted in Chicago Public Schools," she said.
Miguel Ruiz, an attorney who worked with Lázaro on the case, said victims face too high a burden proving their case in court because CPS, many times successfully, argues it’s immune from certain liabilities as a public body, leaving families with an unfulfilled need for closure and justice.
Lázaro, referring to a 2018 report by a former federal prosecutor who found widespread mishandling of sex abuse cases in the district, said "there are systematic issues at CPS that need to be addressed."
"We’re still seeing cases," he said. "The system needs to change."