Illinois lawmakers have renewed bipartisan efforts to address the Chicago Public Schools sexual abuse scandal, filing bills designed to protect students by making sweeping changes to state laws.
Legislators last year proposed 12 bills that would allow state officials to swiftly revoke the licenses of educators found to have sexually abused children, lift the intense secrecy around disciplined teachers and make it a crime for a school employee to have sexual contact with a student regardless of age, among other fixes.
None of those proposals, which were filed late in the legislative session, made it to a floor vote last year. But state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, D-Villa Park, said he now plans “to move forward as fast as possible” with twin bills he crafted with Barrington Hills Republican Rep. David McSweeney.
“It is up to us to get some accountability here,” Cullerton said. “You can’t just leave this on the shelf. It is too important for our kids.”
His proposed legislation and the other bills came in response to the Tribune’s “Betrayed” investigation, which used police records to document hundreds of times in the past decade when a child was sexually assaulted or abused inside a Chicago public school. Published last summer, the series also exposed failures of child protection that extended from individual schools to the district’s downtown offices and the state capital.
A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said his administration “will work closely with the General Assembly to move forward with a comprehensive approach that protects children from abusers.”
“The governor will prioritize creating a robust system of thorough background checks, expedited information-sharing between districts and support systems for students who have suffered,” said spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh, who declined to specify which, if any, of the recently reintroduced bills Pritzker might support. “Schools should be places where children know they are safe, and no child in Illinois should be subjected to sexual abuse.”
The McSweeney-Cullerton proposal would swiftly revoke the licenses of educators found by districts to have sexually abused children and make such disciplinary actions more transparent to the public.
To increase public access to the disciplinary records of school employees in cases of sexual assault, their bills would amend several Illinois laws, including the state personnel records review act, the criminal code and the Freedom of Information Act.
“I am hoping this will move,” McSweeney said. The legislation is co-sponsored in the House by Assistant Majority Leader Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora and Northbrook Democrat Jonathan Carroll, a former teacher.
Their proposed legislation would force local districts to report all credible cases of student sexual assault or abuse to the Illinois State Board of Education. And it would make it a crime for school employees to have sexual contact with a student, regardless of the student’s age. Under current law, sex with a student is legal if he or she is older than 17 and no force is involved.
Rep. Steven Reick, a Republican from Woodstock, reintroduced two bills that would sharply limit the ability of teachers accused of sexually abusing students to collect government pensions.
“It’s a brand-new legislature. There are new members this year, and they are coming from backgrounds with having kids in school. Hopefully they’ll leave a mark,” Reick said.
Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, who last year proposed eight separate reform bills in response to the Chicago schools sexual abuse crisis, said he will introduce a more focused set of bills in the current session.
“We need to prioritize which ones we’ll try to pass. … I am condensing these things,” Crespo said.
Crespo noted that Chicago school officials already have created new offices to investigate sexual misconduct by employees and students, hired a prominent law firm to assess the district’s child-protection weaknesses, passed new anti-grooming and digital communications policies, and begun removing school employees immediately when an investigation is launched.
The district also conducted fresh background checks on all of its 44,000 workers; hundreds were fired, were barred from schools or left their jobs.
“We are in tune to what the Chicago Public Schools have been doing,” Crespo said.
A separate new bill from Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, provides that anyone who commits an act of sexual penetration with a student who is at least 18 but younger than 20 would be committing a Class X felony if the perpetrator held a position of trust, authority or supervision over the victim at the same school.
State Senate President John Cullerton said through a spokesman that he supports the work being done to find remedies to the school sexual abuse scandal.
“The Tribune stories revealed serious problems that lawmakers and staff are working to address. The Senate president’s interest is making sure we effectively remedy the problems that were brought to light,” spokesman John Patterson said.
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February 6, 2019 at 05:09AM