Carpentersville parents Yosuf Chaudhry and Amena Alvi got the shock of their lives when they learned their 15-year-old daughter had renounced her Islamic faith and secretly converted to Christianity.
But how the conversion happened was more worrisome for the Muslim couple, who are accusing a former Jacobs High School history teacher of using his position to proselytize to their daughter and other students through a Christian school club.
After nearly two years of silence, the parents are speaking out about how their family life has been disrupted. The Daily Herald was unable to speak with the couple's daughter, who, according to her parents, has declined to discuss the matter with the media, and even with them or with counselors.
The couple filed a complaint in federal court last October against Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, outgoing Superintendent Fred Heid and former Jacobs history teacher Pierre Thorsen. It alleges, among other things, violations of the couple's rights under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They accuse the district and Heid of establishing a custom of promoting and advancing Christianity and religion through hiring and retaining Thorsen and allowing him to "promote evangelical Christianity while denigrating other religions for over 20 years."
The couple say their concern is not their daughter's conversion itself, but the circumstances that suggest the teenager was being pressured by the teacher about personal religious decisions. They said she previously never had taken an active interest in learning about religion, though she had been allowed the space to develop a personal relationship with God at her own pace in the Islamic tradition. She also hadn't independently researched other faiths to come to that conclusion, the couple say.
They claim Thorsen, while acting in his capacity as a public school teacher at the Algonquin high school, groomed and indoctrinated their daughter since her freshman year.
They say Thorsen provided their daughter, who is referred to by the initials B.D. in the lawsuit, with a study Bible and introduced her to a group of adults outside school who also exerted their influence on her. The couple said they found text messages on their daughter's phone from people encouraging her to become emancipated from her parents -- meaning as a minor she would have to apply in court to be granted the rights and responsibilities of an adult.
"We want people to know that it matters to us," Chaudhry told the Daily Herald last week. He added that there would be clear outrage if the situation were reversed and a Muslim teacher were found to be converting students to Islam at a public school under the guise of education. Alvi said teachers are not supposed to push their personal religious beliefs on students.
"He was representing himself and his agenda," she said.
District 300 suspended Thorsen for 10 days and transferred him out of Jacobs to Hampshire High School before terminating his employment in August 2019.
Charles LeMoine, an attorney with a Chicago firm representing District 300 and Heid in the case brought by the parents, declined to comment and referred the Daily Herald to documents filed in the case in which the district denies its liability.
"We don't comment on pending litigation," LeMoine said. "We filed a motion to dismiss, and that is pending before the court."
In a response filed on June 22, District 300 asserts the case is about Thorsen's alleged interactions with the student and that the district leadership had no prior knowledge of his conduct toward her to intervene. The district denied any evidence of a "widespread custom or practice" that caused the couple's alleged injuries.
In a separate lawsuit filed by Thorsen against the district, he alleges he was forced to resign and essentially fired, documents show.
Neither Thorsen nor his attorney has responded to repeated attempts seeking comment for this story. A judge's order requires Thorsen to file a response to the couple's lawsuit along with any affirmative defenses by July 5, documents show.
During his last year teaching at District 300 in 2018-19, Thorsen was making more than $93,000 in salary and benefits. He now is listed on Elgin Community College's website as an adjunct faculty member of the history program.
A charismatic teacher
In 2015, Thorsen was nominated for the Kane County Regional Office of Education's High School Teacher of the Year award. He was described as one of Jacobs' "truest gems."
"It is not unusual to see Pierre dressed in costumes to create the full effect of teaching history in the classroom. Not only does he make history fun, he requires students to understand the deeper meaning behind the learning," the nomination letter read.
Chaudhry added, "Everyone loves Thorsen. He was like a god to everybody because he was so charismatic. People were naturally drawn to him."
Alvi said she didn't realize how close Thorsen was to their daughter, though she frequently talked about him or lingered after school to chat with him.
Thorsen's popularity as a teacher is evidenced by a Change.org electronic petition signed by more than 4,000 people urging District 300 not to fire him "for speaking about religion in a historical context."
"He is being accused of racism and Islamophobia, which are not only false but derogatory to his name and character," the petition reads.
A majority of comments posted on the online petition forum were in support of Thorsen with one notable exception that surprised Alvi and Chaudhry.
Tim Christians, a former student of Thorsen and a 2000 graduate of Jacobs, spoke of his interactions with Thorsen as a freshman in 1996, when Thorsen first began teaching at Jacobs.
"He started off innocent, then he began telling me how he does spiritual warfare with demons," Christians wrote.
Now 39 and living in Schaumburg, Christians acknowledges he was curious about biblical history, which led him to help co-found Jacobs' student Bible study group that later became known as the "Uprising" club.
Eventually though, Christians said he began to distance himself from the program because it became too intense for him. "It was a lot of pressure," he said.
Thorsen reportedly ran the club for more than 20 years until 2019, when the couple's complaint triggered it to be shut down.
A family estranged
Feb. 6, 2019, is etched in the couple's memory as the year "our entire world was shattered," they wrote in a personal statement to the District 300 school board.
That's when their daughter confessed to the secret conversion and revealed a deluxe edition of the New International Version Study Bible given to her by Thorsen without any link to district-sanctioned curriculum. The black, leather-bound book had multicolored Post-it notes poking throughout the pages.
A review of their daughter's cellphone activities, she said, told more of the story.
"What we found were numerous texts, emails and phone calls made over several months with complete adult strangers which discussed her conversion to Christianity and challenges to hide and lie about her new faith, how they would take her in and provide a place to live if she were disowned and kicked out by her parents and even seeded the idea that she could legally emancipate herself to live her new life freely as a Christian before she turned 18," the couple wrote.
The communications spanned several months and the common thread was Thorsen, they noted.
"They have implied in their communications (with our daughter) that we would disown, mistreat or even kill our own child because of her conversion to Christianity. I cannot tell you how offensive and hurtful this is," the couple wrote.
Now, the couple say they can't engage with their daughter, who won't speak to them about what happened even though she is living under their roof.
"It's derailed our whole life," Alvi said. "It's derailed her whole life."
Since graduating from Jacobs in May, their now 17-year-old daughter has gotten a job and abandoned her previous artistic aspirations, Alvi said.
Chaudhry said initially the couple had been offered a sum of $75,000 to drop the lawsuit. But they said it's justice they seek and an apology from Thorsen so their daughter can recognize how she has been manipulated.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of as devout Muslims and should fight for our right to be who we are without infringement," Chaudhry said. "In a country like this where there are laws that protect our civil rights, we are not going to let people trample all over us.
"I don't want this to happen to some other family."
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