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Chicago Officials Investigate Claims That Female Lifeguards Were Sexually Abused

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Chicago Park District is investigating complaints from teenage girls and women who worked or work as lifeguards at public pools and beaches. They allege that male supervisors have been inappropriate with them over the span of decades. Here's Dan Mihalopoulos of member station WBEZ. And just a quick warning - this story has some graphic content.

DAN MIHALOPOULOS, BYLINE: Summer in Chicago is relatively short. And on hot days, there's no better place to be than this sandy strip wedged between some of the country's tallest buildings and the dark blue waters of Lake Michigan.

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MIHALOPOULOS: Being a lifeguard at the two dozen lakefront beaches has long been one of the most coveted summer positions for young people in Chicago. But at their first jobs as teens and young women, many former lifeguards say they were forced to endure a toxic and sexist workplace culture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I still have all the great memories of working here at the beach, but I'm also looking at it through this other lens that's seeing just how harmful things really were and how much was happening to us that shouldn't have been happening to us. And unfortunately, it's still happening.

MIHALOPOULOS: This woman is now in her 30s and teaches English. But she doesn't want to be identified in this story because the supervisor who she says abused her twice is now a police officer. She said she never reported those incidents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It was both part of the culture of the beach to not tell, and then it was also that I was really young. And there's this level of shame when something like that happens to you.

MIHALOPOULOS: But now that culture is being closely scrutinized. For more than a year, the Chicago Park District's inspector general has been looking into dozens of complaints of, quote, "sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence and other criminal acts." WBEZ has obtained confidential documents from the ongoing probe. Investigators say they've gathered evidence corroborating allegations against three veteran male lifeguards, and they expect to bring many more cases.

In one case from three years ago, the internal watchdog for the Park District believes a supervisor in his 20s sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl who worked for him at a beach. The investigation began last year after two former lifeguards sent complaints to the Park District CEO and to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office. One young woman told the mayor a higher-up sexually assaulted her when she was 17 and that supervisors mocked her when she spoke up. Mayor Lightfoot says she's taking the accusations seriously.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: So I'm following the developments quite closely. And I have made it very clear that they need to get to the bottom of this, get to it quickly. We will not tolerate any misconduct.

MIHALOPOULOS: One of the three male lifeguards accused by the inspector general told WBEZ he did nothing wrong. The other two did not return messages. Officials say all three have resigned and can never be rehired by the Park District. The mayor defends the handling of the matter.

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LIGHTFOOT: The Park District has already taken action against some of the individuals. And where appropriate, I've urged them to make referrals to the appropriate criminal law enforcement authorities.

MIHALOPOULOS: But the mayor's office and the Park District have declined to publicly release many documents that could shed light on how the issue has been handled. Since news of the current investigation broke in April, nearly a dozen former lifeguards have shared disturbing stories. They say that problems have been allowed to fester since the 1970s. Julie Tortorich says she was abused by a supervisor more than 40 years ago as a teen lifeguard.

JULIE TORTORICH: I am 60 years old now. What happened to me was so long ago. And if it's going on now, I can't even begin to imagine how many more women that this happened to in their jobs as lifeguards with the Park District.

MIHALOPOULOS: Now a grandmother of eight, Tortorich said she had hoped the #MeToo movement would have ended the sexual violence at Chicago's beaches and pools.

TORTORICH: I'm shocked. I'm shocked that if it's going on right now in the Park District, it needs to stop because there's absolutely no reason for any of this to happen to anybody. I'm 40 years ago. You know, how many more before me and how many since?

MIHALOPOULOS: Last week, the Park District CEO announced the appointment of an internal monitor for beaches and pools and the hiring of outside lawyers to help the understaffed inspector general's office with the investigation. Chicago's beaches reopened a month ago, but there are still not enough lifeguards, so the Park District continues to advertise for new recruits. For NPR News, I'm Dan Mihalopoulos in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.