A longtime theater instructor has been removed from one of Chicago’s top high schools while officials investigate misconduct allegations made by drama students who were upset over the teacher’s handling of a play they found to be offensive.
The controversy at Jones College Preparatory High School boiled over with the cancellation of the drama club’s fall show. Students complained of a script they felt made light of sexual assault victims and contained inappropriate language and stereotypes that made cast members uncomfortable. Their concerns, they said, led their teacher to angrily cancel the play rather than consider changes they suggested.
From there, students made public several additional allegations unrelated to the play they believed showed their teacher’s inappropriate behavior beyond this single incident. Those accusations include repeated offensive comments by the teacher; sending a student to buy him cigarettes, and texting students, which since 2018 has been against district rules save a few exceptions.
A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman wouldn’t say which specific complaint led to the instructor’s suspension with pay, only that the district “has opened an investigation into allegations of misconduct” at the school.
“Whenever students express concerns, we work to create individualized plans to support them, and we will continue to work closely with parents and students to ensure the school is a safe and welcoming environment for all students,” the district said.
Reached by phone, the teacher, Brad Lyons, said on the advice of the teachers union he was declining to comment. Lyons has worked at Jones since 2010 and makes $88,031 a year.
A Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman said in a written statement, “Our highest responsibility as educators is to protect students’ safety and well-being. ...We are in the process of reviewing the circumstances at Jones, and we are committed as a union to providing a welcoming and nurturing environment, free of racism and discrimination.”
The play in question, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised],” is a satirical show that has been frequently performed around the world as a comical, fast-paced interpretation of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.
Written in the 1980s, however, its script includes material the students at Jones believed was inappropriate for them to act out. One scene features a girl who had been sexually assaulted, and her tongue cut out and hands chopped off. She joined her father to “cook the rapist and serve him to his mother at a dinner party,” speaking with a lisp and holding a bowl with her “two stumps” to represent not having a tongue or hands.
“The show and its content has some very, very outdated themes and material,” said Mila Mussatt, the drama club president and a senior at Jones. “A lot of jokes and comments around rape victims and a lot of very racist comments, as well. A lot of stereotypes that just made our cast very uncomfortable.”
Mussatt said the cast and crew didn’t want to cancel the play — they preferred to suggest script revisions that could keep the comedic value while removing questionable elements.
“He got very upset, and he basically said, ‘Nothing’s funny, everything’s offensive, the play is canceled,’” Mussatt said. “He stormed out of the meeting . . . The environment that’s been created does not make it feel safe for people to bring forward their concerns.
“I don’t think censoring the material is the solution,” she said. “I think having discussions about issues with the material and acknowledging the problems is the best way to move forward. We should be able to take what we can from scripts and add onto them and realize, ‘Hey, this is a problematic thing . . . This is not acceptable today, but we can still enjoy it as a piece of art.’”
A CPS spokesman said the district offers theater guidelines as it does with all subject matters, but each school is left to choose the material it feels suits it best.
Principal: ‘Creative differences’ derailed play
After news of the incident spread around the school, Jones Principal Joseph Powers told families in an email the play was “cancelled due to what could be described as creative differences around changes to the script and its content. The cancellation came in an abrupt manner that left many confused and hurt.”
Powers wrote he met with staff and students, and “we collectively came to a resolution.” But he added “everything is not perfect,” and the administration was “still looking into some concerns that were expressed.”
Four days later, a statement from the about 30 students in the play made clear the situation had not been resolved and said Powers’ email “deeply sanitized the events.”
“Jones students have not felt safe in the drama program for a long time,” the statement read.
Mussatt, the drama club president, said Lyons has called her and other students some of the inappropriate words and slurs mentioned in the group’s statement, such as “whores,” “c----,” “b------.”
Mussatt said Lyons seemed to believe he could say those words in a sort of friendly, joking manner with students, not as a harsh insult. But the effect was the same, she said.
“All the time,” she said when asked how often he used that language. “It has gotten so normalized.”
Another student, a 2019 graduate who asked not to be named, described a time when Lyons was reading a script that repeatedly used a slur against people with intellectual disabilities.
When students would skip the word, he questioned why nobody was saying it. But when the alum, who was in his class at the time, asked him to stop because she had a disabled family member and took offense to the slur, Lyons kept saying the word “to instigate me,” the former student alleged.
When it came time for auditions for the school’s 2018 fall play, Lyons wrote into the script a caricature where an Asian American student had to speak in a stereotypical accent, four people said.
One student, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were one of two Asian American students Lyons directed to speak in the mock accent.
“I was like, ‘I don’t really think I can do that,’” the student said. “And he said, ‘Just try your best.’ . . . I wasn’t the most comfortable, but I did it anyway.”
The other person ended up getting the part and performed the accent all through rehearsals and eventually in front of sold-out crowds.
The student didn’t know of anybody from the school administration questioning the accent until this past April, two years after the play, when assistant principal Eric Mitchell emailed the student asking for details.
“I was reaching out because I was wondering if you’d be willing to share some information about Mr. Lyons,” Mitchell wrote. “It was brought to my attention that during your time with the production of ‘Metamorphosis’ you may have witnessed Mr. Lyons using Asian accents or maybe some other inappropriate actions. I was hoping you might be able to share with me what you recall.”
Another time in 2018, the student was cleaning up the theater shop when Lyons walked up.
“He comes up to me, and he’s like, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be good at cleaning? You’re Asian,’” the student claimed. “And I was just like, ‘I don’t know how to respond to that.’”
That school year, during rehearsals for the musical “Spamalot,” Lyons regularly referred to “CPT” or “colored people time,” according to a person who was in the room when he allegedly made the comments and requested anonymity.
“He’d be like, ‘OK kids, we’re going to take a 15 minute break. Be back, but this isn’t CPT. You know what CPT is, right? Colored people time,’” the witness said.
Mussatt and two other people also alleged Lyons frequently texted students and interacted with them on Facebook, methods of communication that in recent years have been banned by CPS as it attempts to cut down on the potential for inappropriate connections between staff and children.
And Mussatt said she witnessed Lyons send a student to buy him cigarettes using a fake I.D. card and bring them back through a back door without going through the school’s security.
Four people at the school said administrators were at minimum generally aware of inappropriate behavior by Lyons for at least two years, including some specific allegations. But other than the one student being asked about the Asian accent, none knew of any investigations or discipline.
“It’s really disappointing to me that the kids are the ones that had to bear this emotional weight and do so much carrying and work when administrators possibly could have stopped this before,” said a staff member who requested anonymity out of fear of backlash from the school.
Asked about concerns with the administration’s handling of student complaints, Powers wrote in an email to the Sun-Times that school leadership “maintains an ‘open door’ policy,” and “personnel matters are addressed promptly and in keeping with the policies and procedures required by the” district.
A CPS spokesman declined to comment, citing a pending investigation, when asked if the district was looking into the Jones administration’s handling of complaints or whether officials have previously been forwarded allegations from the school.
Local School Council raises concerns
Cassie Creswell, a Jones mother and the chair of the Local School Council, read excerpts from the student group’s statement at the public October LSC meeting, a recording of which was posted online.
In an interview, Creswell said she wouldn’t discuss personnel issues but she believed it was the LSC’s role to determine whether the concerns raised by the drama students were part of a larger problem at the school.
“This is a really distressing incident to hear about as a parent and an LSC member, but it’s even more concerning that I think it’s part of a pattern of systemic discrimination at the school and that we have an issue with fulfilling our students’ civil rights,” said Creswell, who has been a frequent critic of the district on issues of equity and digital privacy.
Creswell said she wasn’t pleased with the Jones administration’s handling of the situation, particularly Powers’s email describing “creative differences.” She noted the school has spent about $65,000 on anti-racist professional development in the past year and wondered whether that has made an impact.
“I have a lot of questions about whether the administration is sufficiently responding to biased-based behavior at the school,” Creswell said. “Given the continuous reports from students that they don’t feel like harm is being dealt with at the school . . . I think there’s a big issue. We need answers as an LSC, for sure.”