Lakefront operates under new management for first summer since sexual misconduct allegations


Photo by Jonah Elkowitz

Zoe Cvetas, who is in her fourth year of lifeguarding on Evanston’s lakefront, said the culture shifted significantly this year under new leadership.

Avani Kalra, City Editor

Content Warning: This story contains mentions of physical violence and sexual misconduct, including sexual assault.

After a report determined city officials failed to properly address systemic sexual misconduct and physical abuse along Evanston’s lakefront, newly appointed lakefront manager Tim Carter had only two months before the start of summer to reimagine the city’s beaches. 

In July of 2021, WBEZ reported on a petition signed by more than 50 female lifeguards and other lakefront employees who alleged sexual misconduct against Evanston lifeguards in summer 2020. Zoe Cvetas, who is in her fourth year of lifeguarding on Evanston’s lakefront, signed the 2020 petition.

“There was this whole situation of verbal abuse and sexual assault that was going on throughout the beach,” Cvetas said. “And the city didn’t do anything about it. The guys who girls were writing about were still working at the beach.”

The report sparked the resignation of former City Manager Erika Storlie, along with punitive measures for other Evanston officials. 

Cvetas said she felt uncomfortable that adults knew minors were being sexually assaulted and verbally assaulted at work, but she loved working at the lakefront. When leadership changed and concerns were addressed, Cvetas decided to return for the summer of 2022.

“It’s just one of my favorite places to be,” Cvetas said. “I wanted to come back and make it a better place, so people could enjoy it as much as I did when I first started.” 

Immediately after Carter’s appointment in April, he completed a series of 137 interviews in 10 days with former and prospective lakefront lifeguards –– a new development in the hiring process for the lakefront. 

Previously, leadership was determined by a physical ability test. The test largely favored male lifeguards according to Gabby Sloane, who has worked at the lakefront since 2017.

“In the past, how quickly you swim, how fast you run, is how you got to leadership positions,” Carter said, “which unfortunately, typically, meant there were a lot of male staff at the top.”

Carter said the hiring system permitted a dangerous culture at the city’s lakefront. 

This year, Carter selected people for positions based on skill set and leadership ability. Though he was judging potential lifeguarding candidates in his first week interviews, Carter said the interviews were also an opportunity for prospective employees to ask questions.

“It was the first time I was meeting everyone at the lakefront,” Carter said. “I don’t know if I had all the answers at that time, but I certainly was trying to make people feel safe … they had my word.”

Carter said the department took several steps to address inequities on the lakefront, beyond just dismissing the lifeguards mentioned in the complaint. In collaboration with Parks and Recreation Director Audrey Thompson, Carter introduced a human resources team. 

The team was available before, during and after shifts to speak with lifeguards. Thompson and Carter also changed the rules about reporting HR concerns so complaints were not directed to a direct supervisor, but could go straight to HR. 

“In previous beach culture, there was a hierarchy and a chain of command,” Carter said. “And you were not allowed to break that chain of command. You could be punished.”

To dismantle the chain of command, both Thompson and Carter gave lifeguards their personal cell phone numbers and direct contact information for HR. 

But one of the biggest changes made to the lakefront this summer was the end to physical training, Cvetas said.

The petition included allegations of rampant physical abuse within the lakefront’s chain of command. Carter attributed those allegations to physical training, which was often used as a form of punishment. 

At the start of shifts, lifeguards are often required to run half a mile, swim a certain distance or perform another task to keep up endurance. In previous years, physical training was also used as a punishment for being late or breaking a rule.

“Before, people in charge would come around to the beaches and basically, if they didn’t like you, they would make you do some extreme type of PT (physical training) out of spite,” Cvetas said. “And they would hold that power and control over you.” 

This year, Cvetas said physical training only occurred in the mornings under supervision. 

Because lakefront staff were also often friends outside of the beach, Thompson said the physical punishment aspects often resembled hazing.

“We don’t have to punish you,” Thompson said. “We can make you feel like you’re a part of this and that you want to do it because you want to be prepared to save lives.”

But, when Cvetas worked as an assistant lakefront coordinator this summer, she said supervisors’ limited capacity was sometimes detrimental to her role.

Carter and Thompson made it a priority to hire more women in leadership positions. But, Cvetas said a decreased ability to discipline paired with a primarily female leadership team led to some issues.

“We couldn’t really tell (lifeguards) what to do in a sense,” Cvetas said. “It was really hard to gain that respect that I felt like I had for my boss when I was starting out. They didn’t have the same respect for us.”

Carter said he doesn’t think Cvetas’ observations had to do with sexism. She said she was constantly frustrated and felt some of her lifeguards did not treat the lakefront as a real job this summer.

“We did have a couple of men on the leadership team,” she said. “The way that the guards would look at or listen to them, the males, was different to how they listened to the females. Especially the young men, who are just starting out at the beach.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avanidkalra

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