A damning preliminary report issued Friday on the sexual assault scandal at Chicago Public Schools appears to put the school district at risk of a massive financial liability.
The 99-page report was the result of an investigation being conducted at CPS’s request by former assistant U.S. attorney Maggie Hickey. (My initial version of this article was written before release of the report. This update reflects the importance of the report and different conclusions.)
The Chicago Tribune initially uncovered the scandal in late May, which identified about 500 instances of sexual assault against CPS students. The new report, however, indicates the number of events already known may be in the thousands, with more victims still to speak up.
More importantly, the report emphasizes systemic, repeated failure to address complaints. “Our review showed systemic deficiencies in training, reporting, aggregating data, tracking trends, and comprehending the extent of the sexual misconduct facing CPS children,” says the report, which adds that they they spread across all district levels — from schools and networks to the central office and Board of Education.
That’s important because it appears to help prove “willful and wanton” misconduct, a legal standard that usually protects Illinois schools from liability. Under Illinois’ Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, ordinary negligence isn’t enough. Generally, plaintiffs must prove “willful and wanton” misconduct — something truly reckless such as willful indifference to readily apparent danger. Here, the number of assaults isn’t even fully known, according to the preliminary report, because of CPS’s systemic failure to track complaints.
How large might the liability be? One indication is the enormous sums paid by the Catholic Church for clergy misconduct, which has driven many Catholic dioceses to bankruptcy (Tuscon, Spokane, Milwaukee, San Diego, among others).
It’s easy to find reported, mass settlements by Catholic dioceses of over $250,000 per claim, and settlements over $1 million per claim are not uncommon. For example, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis agreed to pay a $210 million settlement to 450 victims of clergy sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled with 506 claimants over sexual abuse by priests for $660 million.
Settlements are driven largely by the threat of bankruptcy looming in the background and insurance coverage. Those circumstances vary, and it’s hard to say how CPS would compare, but it’s easy to see how CPS could well be facing liability of over $1 billion.
To CPS’s credit, since the scandal was initially reported, it apparently has been very transparent and intent on getting the facts out. As indicated, Hickey and her law firm were engaged by CPS. The preliminary report says CPS and its people have been particularly cooperative.
That level of transparency and cooperation enabled quick completion of the preliminary report prior to school opening for the new year so that at least some remedial measures can be in place by then. Hickey apparently took it upon herself to issue the preliminary report (it is just preliminary) for just that reason. Salute to her for doing that and for her fast work.
The preliminary report itself does not discuss CPS’s financial liability, and does not appear to hold back out of concern over providing what undoubtedly will be information useful in lawsuits against the district.
The human aspect of the scandal remains paramount and the absence of public outrage is a scandal in itself, but the financial impact of potential lawsuits now likely will represent a separate, major challenge for CPS.
–Mark Glennon is founder and executive editor of Wirepoints.