LINCOLN PARK — A verdict is expected Monday in the jury trial stemming from a lawsuit by a Lincoln Park High School principal who was ousted following a high-profile scandal in the school’s athletics program.
John Thuet, 38, was five months into his role as interim principal at Lincoln Park High School and had just interviewed for the permanent role when he was fired Jan. 31, 2020, and placed on the district’s “do not hire” list, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in February 2020.
District officials told community members during a Feb. 3, 2020, meeting there were multiple investigations at the school involving teacher-on-student and student-on-student sexual activity.
The scandal stemmed from an unauthorized overnight boys varsity basketball trip to Detroit in December 2019. During the trip, two students had sex, which was recorded and shared without consent, according to the lawsuit. Around the same time, a student on the girl’s basketball team reported her coach sending text messages offering a one-on-one practice session that included a winking-face emoji.
Thuet was among a group of top administrators and coaches ousted or suspended. Assistant Principal Michelle Brumfield was also fired Jan. 31, 2020, and four coaches were suspended or reassigned pending the outcome of the investigations.
Chaos erupted at the high school as students and parents protested for the revered interim principal to be reinstated.
Thuet is suing the Chicago Board of Education, former schools chief Janice Jackson, former chief communications officer Michael Passman and District 14 network chief Laura LeMone for their handling of the incident.
Terence Campbell, one of Thuet’s attorneys, said during closing arguments Friday that Thuet was a “scapegoat” to cover for the alleged failures of Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Student Protections, which was created in 2018 to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct.
The office was formed in the wake of the Tribune’s Betrayed series, which details the sexual abuse of hundreds of students and the district’s failures to protect them.
Campbell said district statements made in the wake of Thuet’s ouster damaged his reputation, preventing him from working in education and leaving him with no option but to work as an Uber Eats driver.
Elizabeth Barton, one of CPS’ attorneys, defended the district’s handling of the situation, saying all public statements were factual and slamming Thuet’s handling of allegations of sexual misconduct and retaliation at the school.
Judge Gary Feinerman told jurors Friday they must determine whether at least one of the defendants made a stigmatizing statement about Thuet, if it was publicly disclosed and whether that statement led to the loss of other opportunities in his chosen field. The statement does not have to identify Thuet by name, as long as a “reasonably objective observer viewing the statement in context will have understood it to refer to him.”
Thuet’s attorneys asked the jury for $5 million in damages to cover the reduction in his future earnings, as well as $2.5 million to cover the mental and emotional pain and suffering caused by the situation.
They also want $1.5 million in punitive damages from Jackson, another $200,000-$250,000 from Passman and $175,000 from LeMone.
Central to Campbell’s argument was a Feb. 3, 2020, parent meeting held days after Thuet’s firing. During the meeting, LeMone presented a slide listing the main allegations at Lincoln Park High School, including “alleged sexual misconduct,” “retaliation” and “interference with investigations.”
The slide did not mention Thuet’s name, but it did not specify he wasn’t the one accused of those actions.
Campbell said many parents and students interpreted the presentation to mean Thuet had sexual relations with a student.
“Why would the community at large think that? Why did every single employer that he put an application in think that? Because of course that’s the natural implication,” Campbell said. “He was just fired [three] days ago and they’re telling you here are the reasons why.”
The comments made during the parent meeting were the first in a slew of disparaging remarks about Thuet by the district in the wake of his firing, Campbell said.
“They make him the scapegoat on Jan. 31, they throw the bomb in that parent meeting on Feb. 3 and it continues,” Campbell said.
Amid the other public statements was a Jan. 31, 2020, letter from LeMone to the school community announcing Thuet’s and Brumfield’s firings amid “multiple allegations of serious misconduct.”
“But you shouldn’t need anything more than the Feb. 3 meeting to know what happened — to know the defendants over here made false or stigmatizing statements,” Campbell said.
Barton disputed that public statements made by CPS officials in the wake of Thuet’s firing made false accusations about him. All but one of the public statements — the letter announcing Thuet’s firing to the school community — did not mention anyone by name, she said.
Barton said Thuet failed to follow “hours of training” he’d received in handling misconduct allegations, which further harmed multiple students, including the two whistleblowers about the Detroit trip, the student who was recorded in the sexual act and another student who made the separate misconduct allegation about the text messages from her coach.
Barton said Thuet failed to immediately call the Office of Student Protections or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after learning about the incident from one of the whistleblower’s fathers. He also failed to immediately create safety plans for the whistleblowers and the student who was filmed, even while one of the whistleblowers was being threatened with violence, Barton said.
Thuet’s administration also failed to respond properly to a student’s concerns she was getting “groomed” by her basketball coach after he sent the text message with the winking face, Barton said. That student was pulled out of class by a security officer, taken to Brumfield’s office and “interrogated” about the texts, and no safety plan was immediately created, she said.
The claims were later deemed unfounded and the coach was reinstated in July 2020.
“Mr. Thuet failed repeatedly to act quickly and intentionally in the face of credible allegations of bullying, retaliation and sexual misconduct,” Barton said.
Campbell refuted assertions Thuet didn’t act quickly enough to protect students from further harm. He said Thuet learned about the Detroit basketball trip Dec. 31, 2019, and immediately called the whistleblower’s father.
Thuet was on vacation with his family and drove back to Chicago from Cleveland to handle the situation, Campbell said. The whistleblower’s father didn’t want to disclose the students’ names over the phone, so they met off-campus Jan. 2.
“He gets the information … for the first time on Jan. 2, he calls [Office of Student Protections, he creates a report,” Campbell said.
Campbell closed his arguments by re-centering the case around the public statements put out by CPS.
“They said what everybody who read or heard those statements believed, which is there are allegations of sexual misconduct by John Thuet, that he had retaliated against those people and they admit those statements are false,” Campbell said. “So the only question for you is … would a reasonable person believe that’s about John Thuet?”