Attorneys made their opening statements Monday in a case that rocked Chicago's Lincoln Park High School at the start of 2020.
The federal lawsuit was brought by John Thuet, 38, who was once the celebrated interim principal at the school but was abruptly fired amid an internal investigation of alleged misconduct involving the school's athletics program.
Thuet's suit, filed in February 2020, claimed he was deprived of due process, defamed and subject to intentional infliction of emotional distress by the Chicago Board of Education. His attorneys said the damage to his reputation from his ouster has prevented him from working in education and that, since his firing in January 2020, he has resorted to driving for Uber Eats and learning how to code for work.
The suit named former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and other district officials as defendants. Jackson is expected to testify in the case. The district's attorney argued Monday that Thuet failed to follow policies and procedures put in place to protect students from danger, and that he was "responsible for a series of … inexcusable errors."
Thuet's attorney, Matt Ryan, meanwhile, told jurors that then-CEO Jackson caused CPS to "fire, scapegoat, tar and feather" Thuet to "save face" for the newly-created Office of Student Protections. That office was launched after the Tribune released its "Betrayed" series about the sexual abuse of hundreds of CPS students and the district's repeated failures to protect children.
Thuet was among several schools leaders and officials in its athletics department who were ousted or suspended after claims came to light regarding alleged sexual misconduct involving students on an unauthorized overnight boys varsity basketball trip to Detroit. Other, unrelated claims of misconduct by staff members followed.
On Monday, presiding Judge Gary Feinerman told jurors before opening statements that two students "engaged in a voluntary sex act" in a Michigan hotel room during a weekend trip for the 2019 Motor City Roundball Classic tournament. Video was recorded of the act and shared without one student's consent, Feinerman said.
When the district announced the removal of Thuet and his assistant principal, Michelle Brumfield, about a month after the Detriot trip, they cited "multiple allegations of serious misconduct involving the athletics program" at Lincoln Park High. The district has said that school officials did not protect whistleblowers or handle allegations of sexual misconduct with due seriousness or proper protocol and were dishonest with families.
Ryan said the district's statements to Lincoln Park High families and to the media led the public to believe Thuet had engaged in sexual misconduct, retaliated against whistleblowers, or otherwise took actions that led to student harm. On the contrary, Ryan said, Thuet addressed "concerns as they came in" and followed directives given by CPS officials during the course of the investigation.
Feinerman ruled last month that Thuet could seek money for damages for mental and emotional distress and lost future earnings because of the damage to his reputation. The only claim that will be considered by the jury is whether Thuet's inability to work in the field was caused by the allegedly defamatory statements made by CPS officials in connection with his firing.
CPS' attorney, Susan Best, said in her opening statements that Thuet had failed to take accountability for his actions and to act on the "hundreds of hours of training" he'd received in proper reporting of misconduct.
Best said Thuet's team would avoid accountability by saying he delegated certain reporting duties or by blaming the Office of Student Protections. Though Thuet said he had no prior knowledge of the out-of-town trip, Best said he'd received an email about it two weeks earlier, and that the trip was "highly publicized."
"If he didn't know, he should have," she said. Trip organizers are required to get permission slips, submit expenses for travel and ensure volunteers and chaperones are background-checked prior to the trip.
Best also said Thuet did not immediately call OSP or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after learning about the incident, as required. He also did not act quickly enough to protect a whistleblowing student on the team, who Best said eventually moved out of state after being threatened by fellow and former students after the incident. That student and his father will both testify, Best said.
Best says she also plans to detail how Thuet failed to create safety plans for affected students. She also said she will delve into Thuet's handling of a separate allegation of sexual misconduct involving a girls basketball player against the coach at the time.
The evidence would show, Best said, that CPS' statements are true and that Thuet is "the one who impacted his own employment opportunities."
Thuet took questions from Ryan for about two hours on the witness stand Monday night, and will face cross-examination Tuesday. He said Laura LeMone, the head of CPS' Network 14 that oversees LPHS, "did not tell him to do anything" between Dec. 31, when he received word of the incident in Detroit, and Jan. 2, when he planned to speak to the whistleblowers in person.
OPS officials did not request further action from him when they called him on Jan. 2 either, Thuet testified. He relayed more information to them after an in-person meeting with the whistleblower. He said he also personally counseled students affected.
As the case erupted in public, Thuet had been preparing to interview with LPHS's Local School Council for a contract position as principal. LeMone had wished him good luck on Jan. 27 and had provided feedback as he prepared. But by Jan. 31, she had informed Thuet at a downtown meeting that he was terminated.
Thuet said he was "in complete shock" and "I thought I was going to lose everything." He said he struggled to explain the situation to his oldest son. As a result of his termination, he was put on CPS' do not hire list and barred from volunteering at CPS, including as his son's volleyball coach.