Lincoln Park High allegations test Chicago’s new protocol for investigating sexual misconduct complaints

Investigations spanning multiple school agencies. Accusations of sexual misconduct on an overnight boys basketball trip, and an alleged cover-up. The dismissal of a school’s top administrators and coaches. The abrupt suspension of a team’s basketball season ahead of a big game. Student walkouts. 

And, in the middle of the investigations, the resignation of the city’s independent inspector general, Nicholas Schuler, amid rancor in his own office. 

The recent revelations at Lincoln Park High School, a well-regarded International Baccalaureate school, have become a public test of Chicago Public Schools’ new protocol for investigating sexual misconduct complaints. The district’s response has set off a wave of parent and student protests and second-guessing. 

“The mood is somber, the school is in chaos,” Mary Shaughnessy, whose son is a junior, said Thursday.

Amid the uproar, Chicago Public Schools says it had sufficient evidence to back the decisions to first suspend then terminate the school’s interim principal and one of its assistant principals. But it can’t detail what it has learned without running afoul of student privacy laws and exposing teenage victims. 

“As we have told the school community, we are investigating multiple allegations of serious adult and student misconduct,” school district spokesman Michael Passman said. “Our top priority is ensuring all students have access to a safe and supportive learning environment, and the actions we have taken are warranted and necessary based on the information we have at this time.”

The allegations come at a critical moment for a campus that has experienced recent leadership changes and was seeking stability. They also test the Office of Student Protections, formed after a 2018 Chicago Tribune investigation revealed two decades of failure to protect students from sexual abuse. 

The sudden resignation of the school board’s inspector general at the mayor’s request raises questions about who leads investigations, the independence of the public schools’ investigative office, and how effectively Chicago Public Schools can police itself. 

Whether you’re just catching up or you’re curious about big-picture implications, here are six questions to consider as the investigation unfolds:

1. Why are parents and students so angry, and how will that impact the outcome? 

The allegations at Lincoln Park High School surfaced in early January, not long after the boys basketball team returned from an unsanctioned overnight trip. The district’s Office of Student Protections received complaints that students engaged in sexual conduct on that trip, some of it possibly captured on social media, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The district then removed the team’s popular coach. 

More allegations followed, prompting the district to open additional investigations into behavior of students and adults. The district then terminated the interim principal, John Thuet, and an assistant principal, Michelle Brumfield, and removed two more coaches. 

The list of issues under investigation now includes failure to properly report complaints, retaliation against witnesses, interference with the investigation by school leadership, and financial misconduct related to athletic program accounts. 

The district opened another investigation this week into the conduct of a retired principal who was brought in to stabilize the school, after a video surfaced that appeared to show her grabbing a student in the hallway. The district has replaced that temporary principal.

Many parents and students demanding evidence have rallied to the defense of the ousted administrators and coaches. Students have protested this week, staging walkouts and sit-ins. 

About 50 students stood outside the school’s front gates Thursday morning holding signs and chanting.

“All [CPS is] delivering to us is accusations, not evidence,” said Ben Shacter, a Lincoln Park sophomore. “If you’re willing to fire our two most beloved staff in the entire school, at least give us some evidence for why you did that.”

Shacter said students are unclear on what exactly Thuet and Brumfield are being accused of, and said that the pair had made a noticeable difference in the community.

“Brumfield every day would stand outside the door and hold the door and greet us: ‘Hey, queen. Hi, king. You look beautiful today,’” Shacter said.  “It was really nice for the community. It helped build a really good chemistry that we didn’t really have with the previous administration.”

2. Who is in charge at the school? 

On Wednesday, the school district appointed two administrators, former principal supervisor Jerryelyn Jones and a former principal, teacher, and central office executive, Calvin Davis, to temporarily run the 2,200-student school. Two assistant principals remain in place.

David Marren, a parent member of the Lincoln Park High School Local School Council, said that the council was “completely shut out” of the personnel decisions. On Monday, the council was interviewing candidates for permanent principal, he said, and was completely blindsided by the firings.

The council has noticed a “palpable difference” in the school since Thuet and Brumfield took over, he said, noting the effort they made to address security problems. “They were taking on issues that had been languishing untouched for years at the school,” Marren said. Since the removal, there have been reports of fighting at the school, he added.

3. Who is investigating what? And how will the inspector general’s resignation impact the investigation?

Two district offices, the Office of Student Protections and the Office of the Inspector General, are conducting five separate investigations involving the school. 

A district spokesman said the inspector general generally investigates allegations of misconduct by district-affiliated adults, while the student protections office looks into allegations of student-on-student harm.

But some people — including Schuler — wonder whether the inspector general can truly be independent when the mayor appoints its chief.  

In a letter released Wednesday about his resignation, which is effective at the end of the month, Schuler said, “the statute that gives life to the [Chicago Public Schools inspector general] is silent on the critical issue of how the [chief investigator] can be removed and for what grounds. This inadequacy in the governing legislation can be exploited by those who wish to corral an independent IG.”

He continued, “I know from long dealings with CPS that many people there have been displeased by the tenacity of my efforts and my willingness to speak frankly and publicly about our work. I am confident that Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot is firmly dedicated to independent IGs.”  

4. Ultimately, who is calling the shots? 

According to Passman, the Chicago Public Schools spokesperson, each investigative body will recommend a course of action, but it is up to schools chief Janice Jackson’s team to rule on any permanent personnel decisions.

Lightfoot will appoint a new inspector general to oversee the independent investigative office, which is tasked with rooting out fraud, waste, and mismanagement in the school district. 

5. How much can the district do at this point and what can it say?  

The allegations were first reported to the district on Jan. 2. According to a Chicago Public Schools timeline shared in a parent meeting Monday night at the school, by Jan. 7 investigators were following up and the district removed some adults from their positions. The district notified parents and families in a Jan. 9. Later that month the district received separate allegations involving the girls basketball team. 

Protocols call for the district to remove adults immediately when it receives allegations of physical harm, but in this case, it did not remove administrators until the last week of January, per the timeline.

Investigators so far have presented information that shows adults engaged in “egregious and systemic policy violations,” including failure to follow mandatory sexual misconduct reporting procedures, according to the district, but it has not offered more details, citing an ongoing investigation and privacy concerns about the students involved.

Because the administrators at the school have interim status and serve on at-will contracts, the district could terminate them immediately. Interim principals don’t get the same protections that their permanent colleagues do. The district must hold hearings for the coaches, for whom there is a more formal course of action. 

The district has refused to specify the nature and extent of the policy violations. But administrators have said that the new rules are hard to follow and even contradictory, according to Troy LaRaviere, a former principal who runs the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. 

“They [the district] have failed miserably on communicating a clear and coherent set of policies, procedures and protocols to principals,” LaRaviere said. 

6. How might the case affect the school district’s efforts to rebuild public trust?
The Lincoln Park cases surface as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson attempts to mend the district’s fractured relationship with parents and families. These efforts come in the wake of not just the student sexual abuse crisis but also widespread lapses in its special education program and lingering anger over mass school closings in 2013.

Led by its new school board, the district recently has organized public hearings on key issues like school ratings, teacher diversity, and school funding.

Jackson and school board members have said they will listen to the community in setting policy on those critical issues. But it’s unclear how the district will take parent and student reaction into account in responding to the crisis at Lincoln Park.

On Monday, district officials emphasized that they are following a protocol designed to keep students safe and that leaders could only share so much without jeopardizing the well-being of the teenage victims in the case. Officials spelled out in a PowerPoint presentation their goal — to “move forward as a safe and supportive community.”

Yana Kunichoff and Marie Fazio contributed reporting.