The Chicago Teachers Union is calling for an independent task force of parents, students, clinicians, teachers, union leaders, administrators and outside experts to address issues of sexual abuse in Chicago public schools – and to devise policies that will create safer school communities – in the wake of a series of blockbuster Chicago Tribune reports.

“As a father and a teacher, I’m horrified by these reports,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “Any abuse of a child is morally repugnant and wrong on every level. There can be no code of silence in our schools, and we’ve got to do better at listening to our students. Schools must be a safe space where students, their families, and workers are protected.”

The CTU is also renewing its call for more school clinicians, who are trained explicitly to address issues related to physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children. CPS has consistently understaffed clinicians – including social workers and nurses who can provide age-appropriate health training for students to recognize and report inappropriate or abusive contact. Responsible follow-up for those who identify and report child sexual abuse is also lacking, as is regular information for parents and guardians on how to identify warning signs of abuse or access assistance and resources to support children and families.

“The entire process in our schools is a bureaucratic mess,” said school social worker and CTU member Emily Penn. “Where are the preventive measures? CPS, for example, has made no mention of Erin’s law, which mandates that schools teach body safety awareness and give children tools to report abuse in a safe way, as well as staff training to respond to concerns and report appropriately. While some schools cover this material in health and sex education classes, other schools do not.”

DCFS requires school staff to complete online certification on how to report sexual abuse. But some administrators and principals do not follow mandated reporting requirements, don’t take reports from children seriously, and discourage teachers from contacting DCFS, says Penn.

“School nurses and social workers are specially trained in how to handle sexual abuse,” said Penn, “but we have too few clinicians to support students, teachers and staff – less than 150 certified school nurses and only 170 counselors to cover over 600 schools. Much of our time is bound up with the burden of special education paperwork. That’s not enough to get students and staff the support they need, at the same time that we deal with real shortcomings in administrative follow-up or reporting on outcomes.”

CPS has been plagued for years with a lack of transparency and accountability at the highest levels of authority, from board members that the mayor appoints to school executives who serve with the mayor’s blessing. Without input from an independent task force unencumbered by political constraints, the CTU fears next steps on remedying the prevention and identification of sexual abuse may also fall short.

“These reports once again demonstrate the failure of mayoral control in our schools – and why we demand an independent, representative elected school board,” said Sharkey. “As long as the public face of our schools is linked to a mayor’s political fortunes, CPS remains vulnerable to practices driven by political expediency rather than by what is right and best for our students. That must end.”

CPS must deploy policies built on best practices that work for students – and must adequately staff schools with expert clinicians as frontline advocates to support students, says Sharkey.

“In the era of the Me Too movement, we need to remember that the first thing required of us is to listen to students,” said Sharkey. “Our union cares deeply about the integrity of the teaching profession and our members’ vitally important work to educate and care for students. We support members’ due process rights, just as we support preventive strategies and due diligence in reporting possible abuse. None of that can happen when CPS won’t staff social workers with expertise on this critical issue, or when administrators put political imperatives ahead of every student’s right to safe, secure learning conditions.”