After lifeguards complained of abuse, Evanston official called it ‘doubtful’ anyone would apologize – Evanston RoundTable

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Content warning: This story includes accounts of sexual harassment, assault and rape. 

Two lifeguards watch over one of Evanston’s six public beaches. (RoundTable photo)

Emails newly obtained by the Evanston RoundTable show why the city’s female lifeguards grew so frustrated with the official response to their allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.

In one email, a city official told complaining lifeguards that action on their demands would have to wait because “the priority right now is getting the City’s budget passed for 2021.”

And a key city official wrote to another in the summer of 2020 that it was “doubtful that anyone at the City will agree to apologize and admit that it knew this stuff was going on.”

In the end, the city did express regret, but the apology didn’t come until a year later, after the lifeguards’ complaints became public and a major scandal erupted.

In July, WBEZ Chicago first published an investigation revealing widespread allegations of rampant sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse among seasonal lakefront staff at downtown Chicago beaches. As part of that reporting, WBEZ also uncovered a petition from July 2020 signed by 53 female lifeguards and other beach employees in Evanston alleging similar sexual misconduct, as well as a culture of racism and discrimination. 

In November, Evanston RoundTable acquired a copy of that petition and a year’s worth of email exchanges among city staff about the allegations through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those documents reveal that the alleged sexual harassment and abuse allegations within the community of beach lifeguards were widespread and severe. The anonymous written testimony from 46 female lifeguards amounted to seven pages of allegations. 

The petition began with a list of demands, including a public apology from the city, the termination of any guilty employees, mandatory sexual harassment training and a protocol for survivors to report incidents to the city anonymously. 

“For years, women working at the Evanston beaches have been disrespected, taken advantage of, and been made uncomfortable by their fellow staff members,” the petition’s opening statement said. “We have been the butt of the joke at this ‘boy’s club’ we call a workplace.”

The emails show that at least six city staff members received the petition in July 2020. Several exchanged messages with lifeguards and met with some of them in person during that summer. 

The RoundTable made multiple inquiries to all of the current and former city employees mentioned in the emails by phone, email and, where possible, in-person visits to them at their homes. Four of the employees declined to comment, two of them citing concerns about an ongoing investigation, while the remaining two who received the petition in July 2020 did not respond to requests for comment from the RoundTable.

“The City has retained an outside firm to conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into all matters related to this issue, including steps taken by the City in response to the allegations,” Evanston Communications Manager Patrick Deignan told the RoundTable in an email. “The investigation is ongoing, and the City will have no further comment until the investigation is complete.”

The allegations

The petition includes the signatures of current and former female lifeguards who state that they were subject to inappropriate behavior, a predatory and male-dominated workplace culture and frequent harassment by supervisors. Among the stories the signers tell: 

  • “As a rookie (16) one of the managers used to follow me around the beach, and I was always placed at the beach he managed even though I told him many times I wasn’t interested, and I was underaged. At guard banquet that summer, he pulled me aside and shoved me against a wall, forcing himself on me, kissing and touching me. I shoved him off. He approached me several other times that night. At work the next couple of weeks, other guards and supervisors made comments about us, asking jokingly about my night with him. F— that.”
  • “I repeatedly witnessed my [redacted] male supervisor commenting inappropriately on my 16 year old female coworkers’ bodies. The supervisor would make statements such as, ‘it’s getting harder to ignore these rookies when they’re this hot,’ or ‘xxx may be 16, but she could get it.’” 
  • “The guy managers request guards who they have ‘beach crushes’ on and the supervisors play along. Supervisors prey on younger females and it is a toxic workplace where myself and many women do not feel comfortable due to certain male supervisors.”
  • “The fact that I can think of FIVE (5!) different supervisors that perfectly fit the description in this petition shows that there is a major misogyny problem at the beach.” 
  • “During my year as a former (2nd year guard), one of my supervisors, who was also a close friend of mine at the time, asked if he could do cocaine off an intimate part of my body … Looking back and recounting the things that actually happened while working at the beach, I realize now that not only my superiors, but also people I considered my friends were sexually harassing my fellow female coworkers and myself daily. Trauma like this takes time to process and nearly four years later I am finally understanding what happened to us.”
  • “As a rookie (17) I had a sexual relationship with a supervisor (23). Parts of it were consensual, but there were also instances where the supervisor took advantage of situations when I was highly intoxicated and unable to consent. After a party, he wanted to come over. I texted him that I was drunk and throwing up, and he told me over text that I was ‘wasting his time.’ I don’t believe that I was conscious when we had sex and I don’t remember it. In the days following this incident, he gave me a half apology and asked me not to tell anyone because he ‘needed this job.’ There were other instances where I asked him to stop because I was tired or in pain and he either continued anyway or stood over me and masturbated. Months later, I started getting panic attacks and am still dealing with trauma from what happened.” 
  • “As a rookie I was punished with solo PT (2-run-swim-runs and 40 pushups) while one supervisor screamed, ‘You are just a lowly guard! You aren’t shit here! I own you!!!’ as I did pushups at his feet.” 
  • “I have witnessed the very same (white) supervisors and managers who are guilty of the sexual harassment described in this list make racist remarks — doing everything from calling other employees racial slurs (literally referring to one employee as ‘brown boy’ in lieu of his name) to racially profiling beach patrons.” 
  • “I also want to be clear that this behavior is not limited to one or two supervisors. Sexual harassment and sexism are typical, almost expected behavior. I can name three other supervisors who have either made inappropriate comments or unwanted sexual advances toward me. This is not something that can continue to be pushed under the rug and ignored.” 

The petition identified only one of the alleged male perpetrators, but the RoundTable is not publishing his name because it was redacted from the documents obtained by the RoundTable. According to WBEZ’s reporting, out of 144 total seasonal lakefront employees in Evanston, 44 are lifeguards and 37 are supervisors. 

Dwindling communication

The email exchanges obtained by the RoundTable reveal early conversations with the petitioners and internal discussions about some of these concerning claims. The documents reveal that Human Resources and Parks, Recreation and Community Services staff for the city met with petitioners several times in the summer of 2020, but communication with the lifeguards dwindled throughout the rest of the year. The petitioners also sent multiple emails expressing frustrations about feeling “unheard” by the city. 

Human Resources Specialist Casey Solomon wrote a July 23, 2020, email to Human Resources Division Chief Jennifer Lin that said Solomon and Recreation Managers Ray Doerner and Adam Abajian had received the petition on July 15 during a meeting with four female lifeguards who helped organize the document and list of demands. 

“Unfortunately, many of the younger (some as young as 15) beach minor staff hang-out and party with adult aged staff, many of whom are in their mid-twenties, outside of work,” Solomon wrote to Lin. “Alcohol and drugs are consumed by adult and minor beach staff at these after-work parties, and the men use the inebriation to take advantage of the girls and women. Though these assaults take place outside of work, many reported offenders are supervisors to these abused young women who used their authority over them at work to coerce them into sexual encounters with them or their friends.”

In response to Solomon, Lin wrote in an email that she thought they needed to share the complaints with the Interim City Manager at the time, Erika Storlie, and the city’s Law Department, although she also noted that she found it “doubtful that anyone at the City will agree to apologize and admit that it knew this stuff was going on. I don’t believe that Adam and Ray knew this was going on.” 

At the end of that initial meeting with the four lifeguards, according to Lin’s emails, Solomon told them they would need to move forward with more meetings that would possibly include Storlie, Lin and the Department Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, Lawrence Hemingway.

Evanston Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services Lawrence Hemingway. (Photo via City of Evanston)

Hemingway was the subject of a 2018 Healthy Work Environment investigation into allegations by a former employee of sexual harassment in the workplace, who claimed Hemingway had inappropriately commented on an Instagram post and frequently called her “Pocahontas” and “Lil’ Bit” at work. According to a city memo obtained by the RoundTable, Hemingway “admitted that he has called [redacted] Pocahontas because she looks like Pocahontas, from the Disney cartoon, with the long hair style. He also admitted he has referred to [redacted] as Lil’ Bit because she is little and short in stature.” 

The investigation concluded that Hemingway’s comments on the employee’s social media post, which pictured her in a bathing suit on vacation in Mexico, “were sexual in nature.” The RoundTable acquired a copy of a written reprimand issued to Hemingway by the city following that investigation, stating that “he needs to do a better job of toning his voice down and avoiding colloquialisms and casual language in the workplace.” 

At that point, the four lifeguards told city staff that they did not want to talk to the department director because “they did not feel that Lawrence Hemingway would be sympathetic to the side of the victims,” according to an email written by Solomon. 

Hemingway declined a request for comment from the RoundTable because of concerns about a pending investigation into the allegations.

More meetings with the city, but little action

Less than a week after sending the petition to Evanston staff members, the four lifeguards leading the accountability effort had a preliminary meeting with Doerner and Karen Hawk, an Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation at the time. The next day, one of the petitioners penned an email to Hawk and Doerner. 

“I left the supervisory meeting last night feeling disrespected, unheard, and offended on behalf of every woman who had worked at the beach and signed that petition,” the lifeguard wrote. “As a victim of sexual assault myself, the ‘solutions’ addressed in the supervisory meeting were manifestations of my worst fear: reporting and not being listened to, reporting and being blamed for doing so because of wrongful band-aid solutions put in place, reporting and still not having the right system so as to protect me as a victim.”

In a reply to the petitioner, Lin expressed feeling “sad” to hear that was her only reaction to the meeting, and she assured her that the city would strive to listen to and protect its employees. 

“Your choice to use ‘sexual assault’ to describe what’s happening at the lakefront suggests that employees are being sexually assaulted (i.e., sexually penetrated or raped) while working at the lakefront,” Lin also said. “If this is happening, this needs to be addressed immediately.”

The petitioner responded by saying that sexual assault encompasses more than just what Lin claimed it to be, and she defended her negative takeaways from the meeting. Over a week later, Lin told the petitioners in an email that she had not meant to minimize the impact of sexual harassment or assault, and she wanted to clarify the assault claims in case she needed to call the police to ask for an immediate emergency response. 

In their initial petition and in several other emails, the lifeguards repeatedly asked the city not to launch a criminal investigation. Instead, the petitioners wanted to enact a change in culture so that such harassment and assault would not take place for future generations of young women in Evanston. 

Frustrated over the city staff’s response to their complaints, the lifeguards emailed a new list of demands directly to Interim City Manager Erika Storlie on July 30, 2020. Those demands included requests for greater protections against COVID-19, anti-harassment training for all employees and protection from frequent sexual harassment. However, there is no evidence currently available that Lin provided Storlie with a copy of the full petition that included more details about sexual misconduct at the lakefront. 

After Storlie forwarded the new list of demands to Lin, Lin replied that “we are already dealing with the sexual harassment issues which were raised.” 

During the first week of August 2020, HR and Parks staff held mandatory sexual harassment training for all seasonal lakefront employees. Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist who offers sexual harassment and mental health training, conducted the session. 

Storlie copied then-Mayor Steve Hagerty on an email about the harassment allegations in August 2020, and in September, Hagerty asked to discuss the investigation with Storlie because “I know Jen and our Parks staff was working on this but I’d like confirmation that any issues were addressed and that mitigation measures were put in place.”

When reached by the RoundTable for comment, Hagerty said the allegations were first brought to his attention by a resident in the summer of 2020. He said he then spoke to two lakefront employees and asked the City Manager to look into the situation. However, he never received the petition nor saw the contents of the testimony provided by the female lifeguards, Hagerty said. 

He also told the RoundTable that generally, the City Manager’s team deals with HR and personnel issues, and he only got involved in those matters as Mayor when specifically asked for help or notified of a certain problem.  

Several months later, in October 2020, the petitioners once again reached out to Jennifer Lin, requesting further meetings during the fall to continue conversations started over the summer, according to emails between Lin and the petitioners. Lin quickly denied that request and delayed any more meetings until 2021. 

Former Evanston Human Resources Chief Jennifer Lin. (Photo via City of Evanston)

“Yes, we have had some very preliminary conversations about the plans for next season and we have not forgotten about you,” she told the lifeguards. “Unfortunately, the priority right now is getting the city’s budget passed for 2021, which will naturally dictate what resources the department will have for the lakefront.”

According to the documents provided by the city in response to the RoundTable’s public records request, only one more meeting between the petitioners and HR and Parks staff occurred: in February 2021.

Moving forward

After these allegations became public an entire year after Lin and other staffers received the original petition, City Council convened a special meeting. In early September, Lin signed a separation agreement with the city that did not specifically identify her handling of the sexual harassment allegations as the cause of her resignation. As part of that contract, she received a payout that included over 20 weeks of compensation as a severance package. 

“The Parties acknowledge that this Agreement and the consideration described herein does not constitute and shall not be interpreted as an admission of liability on the part of you or the City,” Lin’s separation agreement said. “This Agreement is the result of the Parties’ mutual desire to resolve any and all matters and controversies between them and to amicably effectuate your separation of employment with the City.” 

Lin sent an email to the RoundTable declining to comment on her handling of these allegations and the nature of her departure from her job with the city. 

Storlie decided to leave her post as City Manager about a month later, on October 8. There is no indication that the lakefront scandal influenced that decision. The City Council approved a separation agreement with Storlie by a narrow 5-4 margin.

Former City Manager Erika Storlie. (Photo via The Daily Northwestern)

Because elected officials control separation terms for only the City Manager, the Council did not have oversight over Lin’s separation agreement. Storlie negotiated that agreement, which only required signatures from her and Lin.

“As I’ve indicated, I didn’t agree with the notion of providing a severance package for Jennifer Lin,” Mayor Daniel Biss told the RoundTable. “But that wasn’t my decision to make, and it’s important in this form of government, in any form of government, for an elected leader to respect the limitations on their power.” 

Both agreements noted that Lin and Storlie would have to cooperate with any pending investigations into their previous actions or conduct while working for the City of Evanston. The city’s separation agreement with Storlie also stated that the former City Manager would be allowed to read the report resulting from the current independent investigation into sexual harassment and misconduct, but when it comes to the general public, “the Report and its contents are confidential and privileged and shall not be disclosed by the City unless required by law.”

Storlie did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the RoundTable. 

The city has retained the law firm Salvatore, Prescott, Porter & Porter to conduct the independent investigation into the allegations. Mayor Biss noted that the firm’s investigators have full authority to go wherever their findings take them. 

Last month, after nearly 15 months of waiting, the female lifeguards who signed the July 2020 petition received the public apology they demanded from the city. Biss and all nine Council members unanimously signed on to the letter, which stated that “we apologize for a workplace culture that allowed sexual harassment to occur, and we’re sorry that you had to experience oppressive, uncomfortable, and dangerous behavior. We apologize to your families, friends, and the community of Evanston, both for the harms City staff and policies allowed to happen and for our delay in issuing this apology.” 

Despite this letter from the City Council and the mayor, no member of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services has come forward to publicly apologize or acknowledge wrongdoing. 

Lawrence Hemingway, Adam Abajian and Casey Solomon remain employed by the city, while Karen Hawk left her post in October to become the Director of Parks and Recreation for the Village of Lincolnwood. Ray Doerner departed in September. Solomon and Abajian declined to comment on the allegations because they were not comfortable discussing them during an ongoing investigation. Hawk and Doerner did not respond to several phone calls and emails from the RoundTable. 

If you are a current or former lifeguard for the City of Evanston and would like to share your story, please contact us at news@evanstonroundtable.com. This story will be updated as more information becomes available in the coming days and weeks.

via Evanston RoundTable

December 2, 2021 at 10:56PM

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