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HAUSKNECHT v. NAPERVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT UNIT 203

May 19, 2004.

KATHLEEN HAUSKNECHT, Plaintiff,
v.
NAPERVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT UNIT 203, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MATHEW KENNELLY, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Kathleen Hausknecht, a former teacher in Naperville School District 203, has filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District claiming that Sally Pentecost, the principal at the school where Hausknecht taught, repeatedly gave her negative evaluations which ultimately led to her termination in retaliation for reporting the suspected abuse of a thirteen-year-old student. Hausknecht claims this violated her right to free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Hausknecht also brings a state law claim pursuant to the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, 352 ILCS 5/4, 5/9 based on the same set of facts. The District has moved for summary judgment, contending that Hausknecht cannot establish the District's liability for the alleged violation; that Hausknecht did not engage in constitutionally protected speech; and that even if she did, she has failed to establish a causal connection between her speech and the District's decision not to renew her contract. For the foregoing reasons, the Court grants the District's motion for summary judgment. Background

Kathleen Hausknecht was hired as a teacher for Naperville Community Unit School District 203 for the 1999-2000 school year at Madison Junior High School. Under the Illinois School Code, teachers attain the status of "Continued Contractual Service" or tenure after serving a probationary period of four consecutive school terms. 105 ILCS 5/24-11. The District uses a written evaluation plan for all teachers which consists of several observation periods followed by a written observation report and post-observation conference. Each teacher is also given a midyear and year-end performance evaluation.

  In December 1999, Hausknecht was observed by Sally Pentecost, who currently serves as principal of the school but at the time was assistant principal. Pentecost gave Hausknecht constructive criticism regarding her lesson planning and delivery. Hausknecht's performance evaluations were given by then principal, Predonna Roberts, who rated Hausknecht's performance as "satisfactory" at the mid-year mark, and "excellent" at the end of the school year. In her second year at the school, Hausknecht was again observed by assistant principal Pentecost in September 2000. Pentecost again raised issues regarding Hausknecht's lesson planning and delivery.

  In October 2000, Hausknecht became aware of a situation involving a 13-year-old female student, referred to in the complaint as Jane Doe. Based on e-mail exchanges and conversations at school, Hausknecht began to suspect that Doe was being physically abused by her mother. Hausknecht gave Doe a camera to obtain evidence of her abuse and encouraged her to make a report to the school counselor, Deborah Olsen. The policy of the school was that any teacher suspecting that a student is being abused should advise the student's counselor, who was then required to file a report with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Doe reported her abuse claim to Olsen on October 16, 2000, but Olsen was hesitant to file a report with DCFS due to a perceived lack of evidence substantiating the student's concerns. And according to Hauskenecht, Pentecost, who had become principal shortly after Doe reported her abuse claim to Olsen, did not want Olsen to report the matter because Doe's mother was a teacher in the adjoining school district. Plaintiff's Complaint ¶ 8.

  On October 18, 2000, Hausknecht was observed by Pentecost, who again expressed the same criticisms that she had previously raised regarding Hausknecht's lesson planning and delivery.

  On October 20, 2000, Jane Doe's parents brought to the school copies of the e-mails that had been exchanged between Hausknecht and Jane Doe and complained to the principal and the School District about this contact outside of school. Hausknecht was instructed to cease any further e-mails with the student, and she agreed to do so.

  In December 2000, Pentecost, who by this time was principal of the school, gave Hausknecht a "satisfactory" rating for her mid-year evaluation. Pentecost also observed Hausknecht twice in January 2001 and again criticized her on her lesson planning and delivery. Despite these criticisms, however, Pentecost gave Hausknecht another "satisfactory" rating for her year-end review, and Hausknecht was retained for the following year.

  When Hausknecht returned for her third year of teaching, Erin Anderson had been hired as assistant principal. Anderson (who evidently was not at Madison School when the Jane Doe incident occurred) observed Hausknecht in the fall of 2001 and was also displeased with her lesson planning and delivery. As a result, Anderson gave Hausknecht a rating of "unsatisfactory" in her mid-year report. The report noted that "although she had a genuine care and concern for students . . ., she continued to struggle in the area of planning and preparation." Defendant's Exhibit 11. The report also noted that the school's administration was "committed to assisting Mrs. Hausknecht where possible" and "hope[d] to see significant improvement in the areas mentioned." Id.

  Hausknecht was observed again on February 11, 2002 by Charles Fuller and on February 27, 2002 by Pentecost. Both administrators found Hausknecht's lesson planning to be deficient. In March 2002, Hausknecht received another "unsatisfactory" rating, and she was advised that she would not be recommended for continued employment with the School District. The year-end report noted that "while some attempts were made by Mrs. Hausknecht to address concerns, those efforts were inconsistent and met with varying levels of success." Defendant's Exhibit 16.

  In March 2002, the Board of Education of the District voted not to rehire Hausknecht for the 2002-2003 school year. In April 2003, Hausknecht filed this suit, claiming that she was terminated in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights with respect to the child abuse report and her obligations under the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act.

  Discussion

  Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The Court evaluates admissible evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Bennett v. Roberts, 295 F.3d 687, 694 (7th Cir. 2002). But "[t]he nonmovant will successfully oppose summary judgment only when it presents `definite, competent evidence to rebut the motion.'" Vukadinovich v. Bd. of Sch. Tr. of N. Newton Sch, Corp., 278 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). "The mere denial of a particular fact without specific references to affidavits, parts of the record, and other supporting ...


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