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Chicago Public Schools theater teacher, local actor charged with assaulting former student

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Joel Ewing, a Senn High School theater teacher and a well-established actor in the off-Loop Chicago theater scene, was charged Tuesday with sexually assaulting a former student.

Ewing, 40, allegedly assaulted the female student starting when she was a sophomore at Senn, part of Chicago Public Schools, according to Cook County prosecutors.

The alleged victim now is 21 and filed a police report against Ewing over the summer, prosecutors said. Ewing was taken into custody Monday and admitted to sexually assaulting the student when she was 17 years old, according to prosecutors.

Ewing appeared in Cook County Criminal Court on Tuesday, where bond was set at $150,000. A message left at Ewing’s home on Tuesday night was not returned.

Ewing, who was the student’s teacher and theater director, met her when she was in eighth grade, prosecutors said. The student attended Senn from 2012 through 2016, when she graduated.

In her sophomore year, when she was 15, Ewing began texting her with messages of a “romantic nature,” prosecutors said. In her junior year, the student ate lunch alone with Ewing on a daily basis and met him in “hidden rooms” throughout the school. On more than 10 occasions, Ewing approached the student from behind and touched her inappropriately, prosecutors said. Ewing told the student to not tell anyone, prosecutors said.

In January of the student’s junior year, when she was 17, she traveled with Ewing to attend an acting festival in Normal, Illinois. Ewing texted the student to come to his hotel room, where they had inappropriate sexual contact, prosecutors said.

After the trip, Ewing began sexually assaulting the student, who sometimes went to Ewing’s home and left before his wife returned, prosecutors said. Again, Ewing instructed the girl to not tell anyone.

The student “terminated her encounters” with Ewing in the spring of 2017 when she was a 19-year-old college freshman, prosecutors said. In 2018, she shared her experiences with a therapist, who made a police report but honored the student’s anonymity.

That same year, an anonymous call was made to DCFS regarding Ewing, and that state agency contacted Chicago police, a DCFS spokesman said. But after detectives investigating were unable to meet the burden of proof necessary to file criminal charges, the case was suspended, said Chicago police Sgt. Rocco Alioto.

The student then went to police this past July, prosecutors said. She was “upset that the defendant still works with kids as a theater director and had taken advantage of (her) when she was just a kid,” prosecutors said.

According to a letter sent to parents on Tuesday by Senn Principal Mary Beck and obtained by the Tribune, Ewing “was removed from the school” in July, as soon as the school “became aware of the charges.”

Beck also wrote that the charges were “difficult news for the entire community” and said that psychologists and other staffers were available for student support.

“Currently, the district is not aware of allegations involving current CPS students,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said. “If we are made aware of allegations involving current students, we will ensure supports are made available.”

When a DCFS investigation involves a teacher and student, school administrators and the district school superintendent are supposed to be notified by the state agency. But DCFS did not contact CPS officials in this case in 2018, a DCFS spokesman said Wednesday. The agency is reviewing the investigation now to determine if proper procedures were followed, the spokesman said.

In addition, DCFS is conducting an ongoing investigation into allegations involving Ewing, the spokesman said.

The allegations of assault come to light just days after CPS and federal authorities announced a legally binding agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for extensive reforms in CPS’ handling of abuse and assault cases.

Last year, the Tribune’s “Betrayed” series documented more than 500 police reports of sexual assault or abuse of a child inside a Chicago public school during the prior decade, and uncovered child-protection failures that extended from neighborhood schools to the district’s downtown offices and the state capital.

Aside from his teaching duties, Ewing also was co-artistic director of The Yard, a student theater collective affiliated with Senn, an arts magnet school.

The Yard featured Senn students producing shows at outside venues, including the city-sponsored Theater on the Lake, the nonprofit groups Jackalope Theatre Company and The Hypocrites, and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which hosted the group’s production of the play “Columbinus” in its 1700 Theater in 2018 (Ewing was in the cast). A spokeswoman for Steppenwolf did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Yard, founded in 2015, has been heralded for its professionally oriented youth productions. On Tuesday, Ewing’s name had been removed from The Yard’s website, leaving Mechelle Moe, an actress and teaching artist at Senn, as the sole artistic director.

In a statement Tuesday, Moe said that the company had been on hiatus for the past year-and-a-half and learned Ewing was under investigation by the CPS Office of Inspector General on Aug. 1. Ewing was immediately suspended from the company by the board of directors, Moe said, and following Tuesday’s criminal charges, he was terminated from his position as co-artistic director.

“As a company dedicated to arts education and youth advocacy, the safety of the young people that we work with is our top priority,” Moe said. “We are working diligently alongside CPS to provide resources and support to the young people who have been impacted.”

Moe said the company is “devastated by this news” and deciding what its future will be. “As of now, we will be working to process, heal and be in community with each other,” she said.

Ewing is also a familiar face on Chicago’s small stages, especially at Jackalope, where he has played leading roles.

Artistic director Gus Menary said Jackalope was “shocked and devastated” by the news of its former collaborator.

“Ewing’s actions were a gross betrayal of the trust and power afforded to him as a teacher and arts leader,” Menary said in a statement. “We admire the bravery of the young person who came forward, and our thoughts are with them, their families, and their peers. There is not, and cannot be, a place for abuse in our community.”

In recent years, the Chicago theater community has grappled with allegations of abuse on-stage and off, leading to the rise of the advocacy organization #NotInOurHouse, which has worked to create standards to ensure the safety of local actors.

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