EXCLUSIVE: Why the Lincoln Park High School administrators were fired
CPS officials told representatives at a meeting that school officials minimized sex misconduct allegations, didn’t protect whistleblowers or alleged victims from bullying, withheld key evidence from investigators and lied to families, sources with knowledge of the meeting told the Sun-Times.
Chicago Public Schools officials told representatives of Lincoln Park High School at a meeting earlier this week that school administrators minimized sexual misconduct allegations, didn’t protect whistleblowers or alleged victims from bullying and retaliation, withheld key evidence from investigators and lied to families about the status of investigations, sources with knowledge of the meeting told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The new, more extensive details for the first time shed light on the allegations that directly led to the firings of former interim Principal John Thuet and former Assistant Principal Michelle Brumfield, the reassigning of a dean, the removal of boys basketball coach Pat Gordon and the suspension of the team’s season, likely for its remainder.
Until now, CPS had only shared a broad list of allegations without tying specific instances of misconduct to individual staff members, leading to uproar from students and parents who fiercely defended their beloved principal, assistant principal and dean, and held protests to decry a lack of communication from the district.
But at a closed-door meeting Tuesday evening with some members of Lincoln Park’s Local School Council — the school’s representative group of elected parents, teachers and community members — CPS officials went into much greater detail, explaining for the first time what led to the chaos at the school.
Responding to questions about the new details Thursday, CPS officials confirmed that several allegations were found to be “fully substantiated” through interviews with students, parents and staff, and that Thuet and Brumfield were interviewed before they were fired.
“Administrators at Lincoln Park High School failed to promote the best interests of their students and endangered victims who were counting on their support,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement. “The personnel actions we have taken were necessary to ensure a school environment that prioritizes the safety of all students, and we are committed to supporting the Lincoln Park High School community through this challenging time.”
Thuet and Brumfield did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment, and an attorney for Thuet, Barry Gomberg, did not comment. Gordon, reached Thursday, again denied he had done anything wrong.
Lack of trust
Amy Zemnick, a community member of the LSC who was at the meeting earlier this week where the details were laid out, said Thursday that she doesn’t trust CPS’ investigation.
”It’s my understanding that there may have been conflicting reports as to how exactly to handle this situation,” Zemnick said. “I think they were an interim and an assistantprincipal that walked into a situation that was a mess, and they were trying to clean it up.”
Asked if she and the rest of the LSC still support Thuet and Brumfield, Zemnick said “we’re fully behind finding out exactly what happened. We still don’t feelwe have that information. CPS keeps saying trust us, but they haven’t done anything to earn our trust.”
Thursday night, other LSC members questioned whether CPS had conducted a fair and thorough investigation at its regularly scheduled meeting before voting to retain attorney Bill Quinlan to conduct a separate probe into the series of allegations. Quinlan is providing his services pro-bono.
Later in the meeting, attorney Matthew Ryan announced that he had been engaged to represent Thuet and Brumfield “in connection with their wrongful dismissal.”
“[Thuet and Brumfield] took each and every allegation of misconduct that came to their attention seriously and they each acted promptly, in good faith, and in the best interests of the students and the community,” Ryan said.
CPS’ Passman said a probe launched by the LSC “would obstruct ongoing investigations into student harm and greatly risk retraumatization of the multiple student victims who must be prioritized at this time.”
“Too many adults in the school community are needlessly creating an environment that is perpetuating the life-altering harm done to multiple students, and they are impeding the community’s ability to heal,” said Passman.
Passman added that the LSC doesn’t have the authority to hire its own investigators, who he said wouldn’t legally be allowed to access student records.
Fallout from Detroit trip
The series of problems at Lincoln Park that resulted in five investigations started on a boys basketball team trip to Detroit at the end of December.
Gordon, the coach, was suspended in early January as CPS investigated claims that he knew about some type of sexual misconduct on the trip that involved social media. It remains unclear what exactly happened in the incident, although sources said it involved students. Gordon has not been accused of any sexual impropriety, and he has denied knowledge of any incidents on the trip.
Publicly, the initial reason given for Gordon’s suspension was that he hadn’t received the proper authorization to take the team on the Detroit trip, and that he didn’t inform Thuet or Brumfield about the trip.
But CPS’ investigation found a series of troubling decisions thereafter, starting with the finding that Gordon told Brumfield about the trip, and she lied about not knowing, the sources alleged.
Then, once Thuet found out about the alleged incident of misconduct, the CPS investigation found he minimized the allegations and instructed the dean to organize a meeting between the accused students and the whistleblowers who first reported it, the sources said.
That led to severe bullying and retaliation against the whistleblowers, whose parents allegedly showed Thuet hard evidence that their child was being harassed and bullied.
CPS officials told the LSC that the principal, for six days, didn’t share that evidence or evidence of the incident on the trip with the district’s Office of Student Protections and Title IX, the department investigating the claims, the sources said. At the same time, he told the parents of the impacted students that officials from that department reviewed the evidence and didn’t find it to be serious, the investigation found.
CPS: Allegations downplayed
The problems with the boys basketball team didn’t end there.
CPS officials told the LSC that Gordon, when he found out about the alleged sexual misconduct on the Detroit trip, tried to downplay the allegations, the sources said.
When the bullying and retaliation started against the alleged victim and the whistleblowers, CPS found Gordon either condoned it or didn’t intervene to stop it, according to the sources.
In an interview Thursday, Gordon denied he knew the details of the incident in Detroit.
“Still to this day I don’t have full confirmation of what happened,” he said. “If something happened to a student I’m not going to downplay it. I understand my role in youth development and protecting kids is first and foremost.”
He also said he was no longer at the school at the time of the alleged retaliation by members of the team, and said he doesn’t condone that kind of bullying behavior.
The CPS investigation also found Thuet’s lack of oversight of the team led to Gordon bringing on assistant coaches who were not background checked nor registered with the district, the sources said. Those assistant coaches, who have since been removed, were allowed to travel with the team.
Gordon, though, said the coaches were backgrounded last year and were actually being paid by CPS.
“To my knowledge all of our coaches were approved and certified,” he said.
CPS officials told the LSC that some of the students involved will likely never return to the school because of the trauma they faced from other students and staff.
Girls basketball coach also faces allegations
Another incident that has been under investigation at Lincoln Park is the handling of a girls basketball coach’s alleged misconduct with a student.
Thuet announced the coach’s removal from the school after he “engaged inappropriately with a student” a week before Thuet and Brumfield were fired.
New CPS protocols put in place in recent years as the district has faced searing scrutiny for its mishandling of thousands of sexual abuse cases call for that type of allegation — which involved an adult with a student — to be investigated by CPS’ Office of Inspector General. New CPS policy forbids adult staff members from texting students.
In this case, school administrators reported the incident to the district properly. But the CPS investigation found that, at the same time, Thuet told Brumfield, who was Lincoln Park’s Title IX representative, to look into the allegation on her own, outside of the inspector general’s investigation, according to the sources.
Thuet also didn’t create a safety plan for the student, as per protocol, until a week after the Office of Student Protections told him to, the sources said.
CPS officials told the LSC that Brumfield, despite her Title IX training, followed Thuet’s directions. The district found that Brumfield wasn’t careful in reaching out to the student, tipping off the basketball coach that he was under investigation, and she interviewed the student alone in her office without offering her to have her parents or another adult with her, the sources said.
In the interview, CPS’ investigation found that Brumfield allegedly suggested to the student that she may have caused or invited the advances by the staff member, according to the sources.
Despite what the district says are substantiated findings, the investigations at Lincoln Park will continue.
A lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of an anonymous student at the school alleged CPS didn’t protect her from a Jan. 13 sexual assault inside a Lincoln Park classroom after school.
That alleged perpetrator in that incident is an athlete at the school and was named in the lawsuit. But the Sun-Times hasn’t identified him because he hasn’t been charged with a crime and is not a defendant in the suit.
The incident is one of the ones under investigation by CPS. Chicago police also confirmed last week that they are investigating the sexual assault report, but no charges have been filed.
CPS is also still looking into a video that allegedly showed retired principal Judith Gibbs, one of the administrators put in the school to replace Thuet and Brumfield, grabbing a student’s face in a school hallway. Gibbs left the school just a day after she was assigned there.
Contributing: Tom Schuba, Lauren Fitzpatrick