NOTE: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault that may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
A new analysis by NBC 5 Investigates has found no comprehensive system to keep track of coaches in Illinois who have been sanctioned, suspended, disciplined or convicted of sexual abuse or misconduct.
That lack of oversight obscures identifying a diverse web of abusive coaches, which has numbered at least 135 in the Chicago area since 2010.
Our extensive search -- which is still ongoing -- combed through criminal cases, teacher dismissals and disciplinary records of sports organizations. But with no exhaustive means of checking which coaches are safe, athletes and parents are left with a system that is piecemeal at best.
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Further problems can arise if a coaching position does not require a background check, or if a required background check isn't properly handled by schools or other organizations.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of a former Chicago charter high school basketball player accuses her former coach of repeated sexual abuse when she was 17-years-old; and alleges her school, Legal Prep Charter Academy, failed to protect her from that danger by delaying—and then disregarding -- a background check that should have disqualified the coach from the job.
"I had no choice but to listen to him and respect him," said the former player, who agreed to be identified as Jane.
The coach, Jamel Helaire-Jones, was hired by Legal Prep in the fall of 2017 and was later promoted to be a dean, according to Jane's lawsuit. In the suit, Jane alleged a range of inappropriate conduct over the course of her senior year.
"When he exposed himself to me, I was angry and uncomfortable,, said Jane. "Because I was like, 'Why are you doing this? What in your right mind gave you [the idea] to even do that?'"
Helaire-Jones, according to the lawsuit, also tried to grab Jane's breasts on two occasions; kissed her; asked her to perform oral sex; sent her several explicit text messages; and sexually assaulted her in the gymnasium.
According to a separate lawsuit filed by another former Legal Prep student, Helaire-Jones was terminated from Legal Prep in late 2018, after texts sent to Jane and the other student were discovered by a parent, then administrators, then Chicago police.
In 2019, Cook County prosecutors charged Helaire-Jones with seven counts of criminal sexual assault in the two Legal Prep cases. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney declined to talk to NBC 5 Investigates about the criminal charges and civil lawsuits. Legal Prep also declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
All of this problematic conduct was proceeded, Jane's lawsuit said, by seemingly normal interest in her skills as a basketball player and her personal life. The lawsuit described several compliments or flattering comments directed toward Jane. They were all attempts, the suit said, for Helaire-Jones to gain Jane's trust.
"Some of those things are things that a good professor or good teacher or good coach might do, but it’s also something that a person looking to do ill or harm to our children will also do," said Yao Dinizulu, Jane's attorney.
Coaches can spend many hours with athletes outside of a school setting, and can more easily blur the lines of normal interest and attention into a student's life to cross into something that turns dangerous.
The boundaries can be pushed to result in grooming, defined by RAINN as "manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught." Experts NBC 5 spoke with said coaching presents a special opportunity for grooming.
The lawsuit Dinizulu filed on Jane's behalf said Legal Prep could have prevented what happened to Jane, partly because "there was no background check performed for Jamel Helaire-Jones until after he was already working at Legal Prep."
Dinizulu said the background check wasn't performed on Helaire-Jones until more than two months after he was hired in October 2017.
"That background check showed the alarming issue of an attempted kidnapping [and] an attempted sexual assault," Dinizulu said.
While Helaire-Jones was ultimately not convicted on these charges, the Chicago Board of Education found them troubling enough to "[warn] Legal Prep not to hire Helaire-Jones," according to a Board filing in Jane's case.
"I don’t think anybody would even suggest that a person with this type of background, should be hired for working around our kids," said Dinizulu.
For weeks, NBC 5 Investigates has been tracking cases of local coaches like Helaire-Jones, who have been credibly accused or convicted of sexual misconduct.
The process is not straightforward, and that is part of the problem. We have been searching through a variety of sources: local news stories; criminal cases; civil lawsuits; teacher-dismissal proceedings, teaching-license revocations by state boards of education, settlement agreements, and “banned” and “ineligible” lists published by the U.S. Center for SafeSport – an organization set up in 2018 to address the issue of problematic coaches – as well as lists published by the Olympic-sanctioned organizations for individual sports in the U.S.
In all, NBC5 Investigates has gathered records on nearly 250 coaches, and we continue to review the histories of scores of additional coaches – ranging from Little League and youth sports to public and private school coaches, all the way to coaches at the college and professional level. Most are in the immediate Chicago area; others are in downstate Illinois or Indiana. Most were credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse in the years since 2010; others were accused or convicted earlier.
Whether these coaches are terminated, placed on the state's sex offender registry or are legally punished depends on the specifics of each case.
According to the Chicago Board of Education, Helaire-Jones' past conduct showed up clearly on a background check. The trouble athletes and parents experience in this tangled system of oversight and monitoring is: What happens when previous trouble falls below a level that would appear on a background check?
Another issue is this: Of the dozens of local coaches NBC5 Investigates has found so far, who were arrested for sex abuse or assault – and then convicted – more than 40 do not appear on the state’s Sex Offender Registry. Sometimes that is because the coach ultimately struck a deal to plead to a lesser charge – such as disorderly conduct or battery – which would not force the coach to register as a sex offender: Another way in which these clearly-problematic coaches fall through the cracks of the already-flawed system of accountability.
"There’s not a clear way that I am aware of to be sure that we can track those same behavior[s] across the board," said Carrie Ward, CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA).
ICASA was part of a 2018 State of Illinois task force, established to look at ways to better protect young athletes. The group was convened, in part, due to the repeated sexual abuse of Team USA gymnasts by Dr. Larry Nassar.
Ward said she believes improvements need to be made in the areas of prevention and reporting, especially considering some coaches -- good and bad -- move between public schools, private schools, volunteer roles and private facilities in their careers.
"I think that we don’t want to make assumptions that because someone harms someone in the past that they would never do that again," said Ward. "In fact what we know is that recidivism regarding sexual violence is high, so in all likelihood the fact that someone has committed a sex offense before, raises the possibility that they’re going to commit it again – it doesn’t lower it."