Lawsuits filed against ETHS, former teacher accused of sexual abuse


Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Ave. ETHS graduates filed two lawsuits Wednesday against former drama teacher Bruce Siewerth, ETHS and the District 202 Board of Education.

Rishika Dugyala, City Editor

Two lawsuits were filed Wednesday following allegations that a former Evanston Township High School drama teacher sexually abused students during his roughly 20-year tenure.

The two “John Doe” plaintiffs were male students in the 1970s. In the lawsuits, they claimed the teacher — Bruce Siewerth — sexually abused them, and that the incidents were part of an “open secret” at the school. The litigation was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County against Siewerth, ETHS and the District 202 Board of Education. One more former student will file a suit, said Evan Smola, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Smola said one plaintiff was an actor for the theater department and the other plaintiff was a stage crew member who worked regularly on productions. He said a third graduate approached the firm, and the attorneys will file his suit either Friday or Monday.

“These types of acts don’t come to an end until people come forward,” Smola said. “So it’s really important that this is taking place, and I’m proud of the people that had the courage … to talk.”

In an interview that aired Wednesday on WGN, Siewerth denied the allegations.

“I’m moving them around on stage and showing them what to do and stuff but not, not groping,” said Siewerth, who retired from ETHS in the 1990s. “I’m not Trump. I don’t understand it. So … I don’t get what’s going on or why it’s going on now.”

Former ETHS students began sharing their stories on social media around Oct. 10, which sparked an investigation by the Evanston Police Department. In their posts, former students alleged they had been sexually abused by Siewerth.

Screenwriter and former ETHS student Jeffrey Lieber said he was the first to share his story in a closed Facebook group for alumni of a popular school show, YAMO, after learning the teacher bought a ticket to attend the show’s 60th reunion on Oct. 15. Within 24 hours, Lieber said his post had nearly 300 comments, a third of which were from people explaining their own experiences.

Although he is not one of the parties in the lawsuits, Lieber said he spoke to the attorneys and would support the lawsuits and serve as a witness. He said the lawsuits were a step in the right direction to discovering new information and holding a public examination of the allegations.

In the two lawsuits filed Wednesday, each plaintiff seeks more than $50,000 from the defendants. They allege Siewerth would “test the boundaries of male students” by having them change in front of him or by groping and fondling their genitals.

According to the complaints, Siewerth’s position at the school allowed him to prevent students from disclosing the abuse to their parents or other adults. The lawsuits claim Siewerth used his ability to cast or not cast certain individuals to “further manipulate” them.

The lawsuits allege Siewerth forcibly grabbed and molested both John Doe plaintiffs — who were minors at the time — and that he chaperoned student trips to New York, where he took them to a hardcore gay pornography theater.

However, the suits also hold the school administration and district accountable, despite not naming any specific officials, Smola said.

Smola said because the firm can’t get Siewerth’s personnel documents until the case is filed, the attorneys do not know exactly who knew what and when. However, Smola said, they know a female student reported the conduct she observed to the administration at the time.

“We felt there was enough evidence of the pervasiveness of what was taking place,” he said. “Given the volume of complaints we’ve heard about, it would be perplexing to us if some fellow teacher or school administrator didn’t know about what was taking place.”

ETHS could not be immediately reached for comment, but in an Oct. 18 statement, superintendent Eric Witherspoon reaffirmed the district’s commitment to creating a safe and supportive learning environment.

He said the district initiated its own internal review, is cooperating fully with the EPD investigation and reported the allegations to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as well as the Illinois State Board of Education.

“We are deeply sorry for the pain certain individuals may be experiencing as a result of these allegations, and recognize how these allegations may impact ETHS graduates, their classmates, loved ones, current students, parents and staff in different ways,” Witherspoon said.

EPD spokesman Perry Polinski told The Daily in an email that since the social media reports first emerged, 50 individuals — witnesses and people claiming to have been abused alike — have contacted investigators with information.

Polinksi said due to the scope, the number of people affected “remains fluid” as police continue to sort through the details. He added that the teacher has not yet been interviewed because the claims are still actively being investigated.

Lieber said other former students have expressed interest in filing lawsuits.

“I’m quite convinced they will,” Lieber said. “That number of two is not going to be the final number.”

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