Lawsuit: School ignored red flags before student’s abduction

Photos: TBI

COLUMBIA, Tenn. — A teenage girl and her father have filed a lawsuit against a school district and a former teacher charged with kidnapping the 15-year-old student last year.

Tad Cummins sparked a 39-day nationwide manhunt when he allegedly fled the state with Elizabeth Thomas. But the lawsuit says teachers and the principal at Culleoka Unit School ignored red flags.

According to the lawsuit, the teen regularly visited Cummins’ classroom when it was empty. She took naps in the room and was even sexually abused in a closet in the room.

The lawsuit also alleges a student saw Cummins kissing the Thomas and reported it to school administrators, who started an investigation. But the girl’s parents were not contacted and there was no effort to remove the girl from Cummins’ class, the suit says.

The Tennessean reports the federal lawsuit, filed Friday, seeks damages from both Cummins and the school district.

The Maury County Board of Education did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

In March, authorities released the following timeline of events leading up to Thomas’ disappearance:

August 1, 2016

Culleoka Unit School, which houses kindergarten through 12th grade, begins the school year. Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Thomas begins freshman year, during which she will take a forensics class with Cummins.

January 23

According to an internal school investigation report, “Student 1” says she walks into Cummins’ classroom to retrieve her bookbag and witnesses Cummins kissing Elizabeth.

“It wasn’t like a make out kiss, just a peck on the lips,” the middle-school student says when she reports it to the administration.

Uncomfortable, she leaves the room and finds “Student 3,” a high schooler, to whom she relays what she just saw. The high schooler will later describe Student 1 as “freaked out” by the incident, according to the report.

January 24

Student 1 wants to confront Cummins, 50, so she brings “Student 2,” another middle-schooler, to his classroom, the report says.

“Mr. Cummins commented to both Student 1 and Student 2 that he is a father figure to Beth. He commented he saw her as a close and best friend. He also revealed … that Beth had been through a lot and had suffered an abusive home life,” according to the report.

Not satisfied, Student 1 decides to go to the administration, the report says.

January 25

The school district begins an investigation. Over several days, Elizabeth, Cummins and an unidentified teacher are interviewed, according to the investigative report.

Elizabeth says she goes to Cummins’ classroom when she becomes upset or anxious. She considers him a friend and he knows how to calm her down. Other students feel the same about him, she says. She denies that they’ve ever kissed and says that she has been to church with him and his wife. The only times Cummins touched her, she says, is when he gives her the occasional fist bump. One time he grabbed her hands to calm her down, she says.

Cummins, too, denies Student 1’s allegation. He calls Elizabeth “a really good friend” and concurs that they’ve been to church together and that she comes to him when she needs someone to calm her down.

“He loves his wife and has never cheated on his wife and would never do anything to jeopardize his marriage,” he says, according to the report.

“Teacher 1” tells school investigators that she sees Elizabeth in Cummins’ classroom “a lot,” during the day and before and after school. The door is always open, and no inappropriate behavior was ever witnessed, the teacher says. The teacher says, however, that Elizabeth recently moved her desk near Cummins’ desk, and the teacher shares the sentiment that “Cummins should have a better boundary between his role as the student’s teacher and the student’s friend.”

January 27

Elizabeth is removed from Cummins’ class, according to the school district.

January 30

The kissing allegation can’t be confirmed, the investigation concludes. Still, investigators recommend several actions, including removing Elizabeth from Cummins’ class; instructing Elizabeth to present any anxiety issues to a guidance counselor; monitoring Cummins’ class to ensure students are not there when they aren’t supposed to be; and reprimanding Cummins “in regards to his duty to uphold his professional responsibility and behavior as a teacher to all students.”

January 31

Culleoka Unit School Principal Penny Love tells Cummins not to allow Elizabeth into his classroom, according to an official reprimand issued to the teacher. Love also tells Elizabeth to stay out of his classroom, the reprimand says.

Law enforcement informs the school district that Cummins is the subject of an investigation, according to the district. The district hands over its investigative materials.

A Maury County Sheriff’s Department detective contacts Elizabeth’s father, Anthony Thomas, and informs him of the investigation, not knowing Thomas was unaware of the kissing allegation, according to a letter from Thomas’ attorney, Jason Whatley, to schools Superintendent Chris Marczak. Thomas calls Love, “but was unable to get an answer of any kind,” the letter says.

February 1

Thomas contacts a woman in Marczak’s office who expresses concern Thomas “had been left in the dark” and says she feels Love should’ve informed him, according to Whatley’s letter. She also says the investigation remains ongoing and assures Thomas there will be no more communication between Cummins and his daughter.

February 3

After the district receives information that Elizabeth was in Cummins’ class for 33 minutes, Love issues Cummins an official reprimand for “allowing a particular student to spend an excessive amount of time in your classroom creating an unprofessional environment.”

February 6

Whatley writes to Marczak, complaining that Thomas has not heard back from the woman with whom he spoke Feburary 1. Elizabeth told her father, according to the letter, that she continues to take a class with Cummins. The teen’s cell phone history indicates as well that she remains in contact with Cummins, the letter says.

“To make matters worse, it appears that this issue is being readily discussed by faculty members and, on at least one recent occasion, in a derogatory tone and manner about Mr. Thomas’ daughter,” the letter says.

Whatley demands a meeting with Marczak, as well as an update on the investigation, an explanation of the measures taken to keep Elizabeth and Cummins apart, a copy of Cummins’ personnel file and an order to faculty and staff that they stop discussing the matter in earshot of students.

At some point, Cummins receives a letter from Marczak informing him he has been suspended without pay, “pending an investigation.”

February 8

Amanda Hargrove, the school district’s chief of staff, sends a memo — to whom is unclear — saying that Whatley’s assertion that Elizabeth remains in Cummins’ class is false.

The memo also notes Cummins has been suspended and that Love will tell faculty and staff not to discuss the matter in front of students. Faculty was informed to tell students not to discuss it as well.

March 13

It’s a professional development day for teachers, so there’s no school, according to the district calendar.

Just before 8 a.m., a friend drops Elizabeth off at a restaurant in Columbia, about 45 miles south of Nashville. Just after 8 a.m., Cummins is captured on surveillance footage pumping gas nearby, according to authorities. By that afternoon, authorities suspect the two were about 80 miles away in Decatur, Alabama.

Then, they vanish.

The Maury County Sheriff’s Department enters Elizabeth as “missing” in a national law enforcement database, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Elizabeth’s family releases a statement asking the public to be Elizabeth’s eyes, ears and voice and to notify law enforcement if anyone sees her.

District Attorney General Brent Cooper confirms Cummins has been charged with sexual contact with a minor, stemming from “an alleged sexual interaction” at school, the TBI says.