Elizabeth and her teacher Tad Cummins vanished from Columbia, Tennessee, in March

By Harriet Sokmensuer
January 23, 2018 08:06 PM

A Tennessee teen and her father have filed suit in federal court against the former teacher accused of abducting her last year, PEOPLE confirms.

The suit seeks a “reasonable amount” of damages, as defined by a jury, and names as defendants both Tad Cummins and the Tennessee school district where he was employed as a health sciences teacher when he allegedly groomed and sexually abused student Elizabeth Thomas.

She was then 15. He was 50.

Filed on Friday by Elizabeth and her dad, Anthony Thomas, the suit alleges Cummins violated Elizabeth’s right to “bodily integrity” in the course of sexually abusing her in his position as her teacher.

The district, the Thomas’ complaint claims, ignored warning signs about Cummins’ behavior and failed to protect Elizabeth from a “predator.”

She and Cummins vanished from Columbia, Tennessee, in early March, sparking a nationwide manhunt that lasted for more than a month before they were discovered living together in a remote shelter in Northern California.

The Thomas family’s attorney, Jason Whatley, declined to comment on the suit. Attorneys for Cummins and the Maury County Public Schools could not immediately be reached on Tuesday.

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From left: Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins

A Pattern of Troubling Incidents?

The 19-page complaint, which identifies Elizabeth as “Jane Doe,” includes newly alleged behavior in describing the course of the relationship between her and Cummins. According to the suit, the alleged sexual abuse began in the spring of 2016.

The lawsuit also alleges that despite a student reporting to school officials that she saw Cummins kissing Elizabeth in January, the teen was not immediately removed from Cummins class nor were her parents notified.

Only weeks after the incident, the lawsuit states, was Anthony Thomas was informed of the alleged “kissing incident.”

Cummins continued to teach at the school, authorities previously told PEOPLE. He was suspended without pay on Feb. 6, after Whatley sent a letter to the school board, he told PEOPLE.

In March, Cummins was fired from his job at Culleoka Unit School after he was named as the suspect in Elizabeth’s disappearance.

She and Cummins first met when she joined Culleoka in the fall of 2015, her family has told PEOPLE.

In the spring semester of 2016, she was assigned to Cummins’ class, her family said. Aware of what the lawsuit describes as her troubled home life, Cummins befriended Elizabeth and offered to counsel her in his classroom, the family said.

From there Cummins allegedly “groomed” Elizabeth, her family said. At one point during the semester, he told her “his ‘soul’ could see her ‘soul,’ ” the family’s lawsuit claims.

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Tad Cummins
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Months later, Cummins allegedly told Elizabeth he “wanted to see her naked,” the lawsuit states. Things escalated when he had her go into his classroom closet to kiss and fondle her “regularly,” according to the suit’s allegations.

He told other students he considered himself a father figure to Elizabeth.

“The growing relationship between Cummins and [Elizabeth] was apparent to other Culleoka Unit School students and teachers,” the lawsuit states. “One student complained to [school administration] and asked to be removed from Cummins’ class due to her feeling uncomfortable with the relationship between Cummins and” Elizabeth.

The “classroom closet” sexual encounters allegedly occurred regularly during school hours until mid-January 2017, when Cummins was allegedly caught kissing Elizabeth by another student.

During the investigation of that incident, Cummins chaperoned a field trip that Elizabeth attended, the lawsuit states. During the trip, he allegedly “propositioned [her] for sex.”

She refused out of fear of being discovered, according to the suit.

Cummins, now 51, was returned to Tennessee after being found in California to be tried on charges of kidnapping and sex crimes. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in custody.

His defense attorney previously issued a statement claiming he had “no history of violence and no criminal history whatsoever,” and that he didn’t coerce, force or threaten Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Thomas after being returned to Tennessee last year
James Bennett

Now 16, Elizabeth returned to Columbia in July following months of therapy in another location and is home-schooled.

“There’s been so much speculation about me,” she told a local paper in September, in her first public comments after returning home. “There are people saying, ‘She’s not talking for this reason. She’s not talking for that reason.’ It’s not that. It’s just the publicity is affecting people.

“Everyone just needs to calm down. I am a human being. I can answer things fairly. But people are asking things that are too personal. People are talking to me like they know me. They didn’t talk to me before. They didn’t try to know me before. They have only liked me since I came back.”

“I don’t regret it, nor do I say it was the right thing to do,” Elizabeth said during the impromptu interview at a fast food restaurant. “It was an experience I’ll have to live with the rest of my life.”