Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson testified in federal court Wednesday that it was the right call to fire a popular principal amid an unfolding scandal at Lincoln Park High School and that a series of statements put out by the district about the decision were truthful.
“I would not take back anything,” Jackson told a jury about the uproar surrounding the January 2020 termination of 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.
During often-contentious questioning by Thuet’s attorney, Jackson also took some of the more vocal parents on the Local School Council to task for ignoring the “health and welfare” of student victims in favor of protecting the careers of adults. In a previous sworn deposition, Jackson had said the parents were “acting like fools.”
“I do think that the behavior of the parents, not all, but many of them, was completely unacceptable,” said Jackson, who left CPS in 2021 and now heads the scholarship program HOPE Chicago.
Jackson took the witness stand on the third day of trial over Thuet’s lawsuit asserting he was deprived of due process, defamed and subjected to intentional infliction of emotional distress by his dismissal, which occurred weeks after claims came to light that a student was sexually assaulted on an unauthorized overnight boys varsity basketball trip to Detroit. Other, unrelated claims of misconduct by staff members followed.
Thuet’s attorneys said the damage to his reputation from his ouster has prevented him from working in education and that, since his firing, he has resorted to driving for Uber Eats and learning how to code for work.
In opening statements earlier this week, Thuet’s attorneys told jurors that Jackson caused CPS to “fire, scapegoat, tar and feather” Thuet to “save face” for the newly created Office of Student Protections, which Jackson 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.
On Wednesday, Jackson said she was only weeks into her term as schools CEO when the first open-records requests in the Tribune’s investigation came in, and that it quickly consumed her administration.
“There was no honeymoon for me,” Jackson said.
Once it was published, the “Betrayed” series brought outcries for reform and led to a lengthy review of the district’s practices and policies by former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Illinois Inspector General Maggie Hickey.
Jackson testified that in the wake of the series, she helped orchestrate an “entire overhaul of the system” that brought meaningful fixes to protocols surrounding allegations of sexual abuse of students. “I would argue I did a really good job,” she said.
When attorney Terence Campbell, who represents Thuet, asked Jackson if she really “fixed all the entrenched problems in CPS” in just a matter of months, Jackson replied, “I said yes, I did.”
“You did? Wow,” Campbell shot back in an incredulous tone.
Jackson, whose testimony was expected to wrap up Thursday, is a key witness in a trial that has been largely limited by U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman to potential damages surrounding Thuet’s firing and its justification by CPS, not the underlying allegations of student behavior.
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 Motor City Roundball Classic tournament in December 2019. Video was recorded of the act and shared without one student’s consent, Feinerman said.
Another basketball player reported an unsubstantiated version of events to his father, claiming that two other players also had sex with one of the students that night without her knowledge.
The Tribune has previously reported CPS’ Office of Student Protection found “insufficient evidence” to support that player’s allegation, but did find the two were “present” during the sex act.
When the district announced the removal of Thuet and his assistant principal, Michelle Brumfield, about a month after the Detroit trip, they cited “multiple allegations of serious misconduct involving the athletics program” at Lincoln Park High.
Though in many cases the district didn’t specify whom the claims were against, 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.
CPS’ attorney, Susan Best, said in her opening statements that Thuet had failed to take accountability for his actions or to act on the “hundreds of hours of training” he’d received in proper reporting of misconduct.
Best 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.
During Jackson’s testimony Wednesday, Thuet’s attorneys showed jurors angry emails sent by Lincoln Park High School parents to Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the wake of his firing, including one alleging the school’s leadership had been unfairly “decapitated” by the district “in what appears to be a test pilot for a new CPS policy.”
Jurors also watched public comments by enraged parents at the Chicago Board of Education’s meeting on Feb. 26, 2020, when a series of speakers demanded that Thuet and others be immediately reinstated.
Jackson testified that while Thuet had clearly done some good things and was well-liked, his failure to follow his training was inexcusable.
“I would never fire a principal without cause,” she said. “Mr. Thuet failed incredibly on multiple occasions to protect students. … Both things can be true. You can be likeable and also be incompetent.”
Jackson also defended authorizing her communications team to provide “background” information to reporters as the scandal continued to mushroom, leading to news articles saying that CPS had “fully substantiated” allegations that Thuet and other school leaders had “fostered a dangerous culture for students,” among other infractions.
“I assumed that they would be damaging to him but they were also factual, so we weren’t saying anything that we did not know to be true,” Jackson said of the statements.
The trial’s first witness was Thuet himself, who said he first learned of the allegation of potential misconduct on the basketball team on Dec. 31, days after the Detroit trip, and reported it to higher ups at the Office of Student Protections two days later.
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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. Laura LeMone, the head of CPS’ Network 14 that oversees LPHS, 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.
During Jackson’s testimony Wednesday, Campbell pressed the former CEO on why Thuet needed to be summarily fired when other disciplinary options were available, such as a reprimand, suspension or transfer to another school or position.
“Every violation of a policy doesn’t require a death sentence to your career, right?” Campbell asked.
“That’s correct,” Jackson said, who left CPS in 2021 after a four-year stint at the helm that included a teachers strike and the COVID-19 school shutdown.