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Colquitt v. Rich Township High School District No. 227

August 14, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hartman

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Honorable Ellis E. Reid, Judge Presiding.

Lemont Colquitt, a freshman at Rich South High School (Rich South), through his mother and next friend, sought a writ of certiorari in the circuit court to enjoin the Board of Education of Rich Township High School District No. 227 (Board) from expelling him. The Board appeals from the court's order reversing its decision and finding that section 10-22.6 of the Illinois School Code (School Code) is unconstitutional as applied to Lemont, raising as issues whether (1) the School Code is constitutionally deficient as applied in the case sub judice for failing to mandate the verbatim transcription of disciplinary hearings; (2) Lemont was deprived of the right to confrontation and cross-examination in violation of his due process rights; and (3) the Board's decision to expel Lemont was supported by the evidence.

On January 14, 1997, the Board entered an order expelling Lemont Colquitt from Rich South for three semesters due to gross misconduct, harassment and verbal intimidation. The Board had conducted a hearing previously and provided notice to Lemont's parents in accordance with the applicable provisions of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/10-22.6 (West 1996)).

A hearing officer appointed by the Board presided over the hearing, which took place on January 9, 1997. In attendance were Lemont and his parents, their attorney, numerous witnesses, and the attorney for Rich South's administration. The hearing lasted six hours. Both oral testimony and written statements were admitted. Both attorneys were provided the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses. Although no court reporter was present, the hearing officer prepared a 36-page report summarizing the evidence.

According to that report, Dr. Kenneth Reczkiewicz, principal of Rich South, testified that on December 11, 1996, he interviewed three students regarding an earlier verbal altercation involving Lemont. Although Reczkiewicz did not witness the actual confrontation, he spoke with each student immediately after the incident and each individually prepared, dated and signed written statements for Reczkiewicz detailing their observations. None of the students were present at the hearing; two already had withdrawn from Rich South, attending alternative schools, and the other was not reenrolled. Over a hearsay objection by Lemont's attorney, the statements of the three students, Charles Williams, Bryan Gayles and Gian Rhymes, were entered as evidence.

According to the statements, on December 11, 1996, all three students were in the high school after hours to watch a basketball game. During the game, Lemont, who was accompanied by another young man, started a verbal altercation with Gian outside the gymnasium, resulting in Lemont and his companion showing Gian, Charles and Bryan guns and threatening to kill them. Immediately thereafter, Lemont and the other young man ran out of the school.

After those statements were admitted at the hearing, several witnesses testified. Enyth Preacely, a teacher at Rich South, testified at the hearing that she approached a group of students, including Gian, Lemont and another young man, standing outside the gymnasium. Immediately, she heard Lemont say to Gian, "if you take it outside you won't come back in, I'll put a cap in you," while patting his waist with both hands. Lemont's friend, whom Preacely could not identify, stated he had a gun. Although she saw no weapon, Preacely left to summon the police.

Lionel Cesar, a teacher at Rich South, testified that he approached Gian and Lemont outside the school's gymnasium while the two were exchanging loud words. Grabbing onto Gian to prevent a physical fight, Cesar heard Lemont shout, "why don't you come out. I promise you will not come back." Cesar also saw Lemont and his companion pull up their coats and gesture towards their waists as if to indicate they had weapons. Although Cesar saw no guns, he heard Lemont again say that Gian would "not come back if he stepped out" and also heard someone in the gathering crowd shout, "there's a gun, there's a gun."

While Cesar still held Gian, Rich South teacher Lee Johnson, arriving as the altercation ended, saw two individuals walking away from the area. Knowing that the police had been called, Johnson yelled for the two to stop, but they began running and left the school through the front doors.

Also testifying at the hearing was Assistant Principal Margurite Martin. She conducted a follow-up investigation of the incident. Over a hearsay objection, Martin indicated that she had spoken to an unnamed student on three occasions whom she believed was a credible and unbiased witness to the incident. Although the student witnessed the incident, he was not aligned with either group and his presence at the scene was inadvertent. According to Martin, the student was frightened and would not testify for fear of retaliation. At Martin's urging, however, the student prepared a written statement which was admitted at the hearing over objection. That statement indicated that while Lemont argued with Gian, Charles and Bryan, he held a gun at a firing angle for three to five seconds after which he ran out of the high school.

A statement by Edwin Wilkins, basketball coach at Rich South, also was admitted at the hearing over objection by Lemont's attorney. Wilkins' statement detailed his observation of an argument between two students, neither of whom he knew by name, outside the gymnasium. He described one of the students, matching Lemont's description, and indicated that the student stated, "I'm packing," while lifting his shirt and gesturing towards his waistband.

At the Conclusion of the school administration's evidence, Lemont was given the opportunity to present any witness testimony, statements or other evidence regarding his alleged misconduct. In his case, Lemont presented the testimony of four witnesses in addition to his own.

According to the testimony, Melissa Robinson, Stacy Blanchard and Lakia Colquitt, who is Lemont's sister, were members of the Future Business Leaders of America at Rich South and attended a meeting of that club on December 11, 1996. After the meeting, the club showed a movie and served pizza to those in attendance. The girls had invited Lemont and Mario Robinson, Melissa's 21-year-old brother, to watch the movie with them. At some point after the meeting, Gian approached Stacy, who was Lemont's girl friend, and asked for pizza, but was told "no," and left. Gian returned again to ask Stacy for pizza. He grabbed Stacy's arm, stating, "girl, don't ...

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