(RoundTable photo)

In an emotionally taut public comment session July 26, speakers at the Evanston City Council meeting expressed strong support of the 56 young women lifeguards and beach staff who signed a petition in 2020, alleging sexual harassment while working at Evanston’s lakefront.

The outpouring was the first widespread response by the Evanston public to a WBEZ report on July 16 that described concerns brought by the young lifeguards and other beach employees to the City in the July 2020 petition.

The petition requested the City apologize to the “survivors, their families and all lakefront employees for consistently placing underaged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and dangerous situations and in close proximity with sexual predators.”

The outside investigation into the handling of those allegations, which current City Council Members have requested, should include “answering the question of ‘When did they [City officials] know it?’” said one speaker, Nicholas Korzeniowski, a former candidate for City Council.

Dickelle Fonda, a psychotherapist and long-time Evanston activist, noted that new Mayor Daniel Biss, after being alerted about the existence of the petition June 19, took it to staff immediately.

“Then more than three weeks later, never receiving a response, until the WBEZ report story was released,” she said.

“I’m left wondering if the story hadn’t aired on July 16 when would [City officials] have responded?

“I am hopeful,” she said to Council Members, “that you will find your way forward to make some very deep changes at the very top levels of the City administration who are responsible for this travesty.”

Some 20 speakers addressed the sexual harassment allegations during the hourlong public-comment session, and another dozen people submitted emails listing concerns.

— Trisha Connolly, a local activist and resident, urged Council members to take action.

“It is upon our elected leaders, and the staff and City Manager of this City, to do something, and to clean house. This has been over a year. We have to show everyone in the City, in this institution, what we expect.”

— Geeta Maker-Clark, a family physician with the NorthShore Medical Group, said she has taken care of many young people over the years who have been victims of sexual violence “and what I would ask is for there to be a public strong and swift apology to every one of the 56 people who came forth. Before we do anything further.”

“While many people today will call for resignations and firings of the staff — and I do believe that that is part of what needs to happen, as we address the incidents over the many years that they have been — I think we really need to look much more deeply at the environment that created this situation, “ she said, “and which 56 employees of our City had to re-traumatize themselves to be able to come forthright speak about a culture that has been pervasive for years.”

— Leslie Williams, former head of Adult Services at the Evanston Public Library, said, “As someone who has worked as a supervisor in the City of Evanston, I’m baffled at how such outrageous behavior could have been allowed to go on unchecked for so long. Department heads and supervisors set the tone for their employees. And it’s inexcusable the department head would have failed to recognize this pattern of harassment and abuse and failed to stop it,” she said, asking City Council members for a “prompt and thorough investigation.”

— Elizabeth Feldman, who recently retired as the medical director at the Erie Family Health Center in Evanston,  said the importance of an apology in the case should not be minimized.

“I’m afraid that every day that goes on that we don’t offer a full apology to each of the 56 who signed the petition only adds to the trauma that they’ve already experienced.

“I understand that there’s a theoretical concern that an apology might somehow imply guilt,” she said, “but I will tell you as a physician. … If a mistake is made, if a medical malpractice potentially mistake is made, we are told that it is far better to acknowledge the mistake, to apologize, to listen carefully to the patient that was harmed, and then to fix it and make amends as quickly as possible. In fact, if we apologize quickly, the risk of a lawsuit goes down,” Ms. Feldman concluded.

— Betsy Wilson started her testimony by offering an apology to former City staffer Porschia Davis and her colleagues, “who told us two years ago that there was a rampant problem of sexual harassment in the Parks Department.

“As far as I can tell, the City did nothing, there were no consequences and no remediation,” she said, maintaining, “it wasn’t until the 56 young people at the beach – people who, as the population looks like my teenage white daughter – that I became outraged enough to stand up.

“I’d also like to apologize to my daughter and her friends, and the other young people in Evanston, because I have tolerated an environment in which girls can expect to have their butts slapped in the middle school hallways; Evanston teenagers can expect to be catcalled when they’re hanging out in downtown Evanston; and employees of the City can expect their bosses, both on the beach, and in the Civic Center to comment on how they look in the bikini. And I’m sorry that I and we as a community have let that go on for so long. We need to do better.”

— Speaking before Ms. Wilson, Kevin Brown, the City’s former Community Services manager, also referred to Ms. Davis, maintaining, “the allegations you’ve [Council Members] recently been made aware of have been alleged for many years. Victims have been ignored. I’ve given my life to working with young people and supporting young people, and it saddens me that young people have really suffered, and will have lifetime scars because of negligence [by] staff.”

— Kaethe Morris Hoffer, Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, whose son was recently hired to work as an Evanston lifeguard, urged Council Members “not to fall into the trap of looking for monsters or scapegoats.

“Outrage about sexual harm is a critical thing, and good,” she said. “But while the problem with Evanston beaches is real and urgent, it is far from unique, and addressing it should only be an opening salvo in greater efforts to see, prevent and respond to sexual violation, which disproportionately lands, not just on girls and women, but BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] communities, members of the LGBTQ community and others who are members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups.”

— Laura Beth Nielsen,  the chair of Northwestern University’s Department of Sociology, a lawyer and author of two books about sexual harassment, noted that a number of speakers before her had called for accountability, “and you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Accountability for what? Okay, these things happen at the workplace.’

“But I need to tell you – and these are all empirically generated peer-reviewed social science data that I’m happy to provide the citations for – women sexually assaulted and raped in this age group suffer elevated likelihoods of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] and depression.

“Almost one third of sexual assault victims develop PTSD sometime during their lifetime,” she said, “and more than one in 10 victims of assault still has PTSD at the present [time].”

Further, Dr. Nielsen said, “Sexual trauma can be accountable for these lifelong harms that impact wage disparity in systematic ways.”

The full City Council meeting is on the City’s YouTube channel.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.