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Mary E. Sabol, et al., Etc v. Walter Payton College Preparatory

April 13, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge


Mary Sabol and Floyd Jones, Jr. brought this suit by themselves and on behalf of their daughter, Elizabeth Sabol-Jones ("Sabol-Jones"), who was suspended from Walter Payton College Preparatory High School (the "School") for consuming alcohol on a School-sponsored trip to China. Sabol-Jones filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C §1983 ("Section 1983") against the School, the Chicago Board of Education ("Board"), former Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools ("CPS") Arne Duncan ("Duncan"), Dr. Pamela Randall ("Dr. Randall"), the School's Principal Ellen Estrada ("Estrada") and Jane Lu ("Lu"). Sabol-Jones has also brought two state-law charges of abuse of discretion and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

All defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, and Sabol-Jones has responded in kind.*fn1 For the following reasons defendants' motion is granted and Sabol-Jones' is denied.

Summary Judgment Standard

Every Rule 56 movant bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact (Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). For that purpose courts consider the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to nonmovants and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor (Lesch v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., 282 F.3d 467, 471 (7th Cir. 2002)). But a non-movant must produce more than "a mere scintilla of evidence" to support the position that a genuine issue of material fact exists (Wheeler v. Lawson, 539 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2008)) and "must come forward with specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial" (id.).*fn2

Ultimately summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-movant (Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

One more complexity is added where, as here, cross-motions for summary judgment are involved. Those same principles require the adoption of a dual perspective that this Court has sometimes referred to as Janus-like: As to each motion the non-movant's version of any disputed facts must be credited. What follows, then, is a summary of the facts in those terms.*fn3

Factual Background

In the summer before her senior year at the School, Sabol-Jones, a high-achieving African-American student, took part in two School-sponsored trips to China (D. St. ¶8). School officials informed Sabol-Jones and her parents multiple times before the trips that any use of alcohol was strictly prohibited and would result in her being sent home at her own expense (id. ¶¶9, 13). She and her parents signed a contract agreeing to those rules (id. ¶13). Nonetheless Sabol-Jones consumed alcohol on the first trip, but the school chaperones did not find out and she was not punished (id. ¶10).

About two weeks into the second trip, Sabol-Jones purchased alcohol at a supermarket and consumed it on a quad close to the dormitory where she was staying in Shanghai (id. ¶19). Two nights later she sneaked out of her dorm room after curfew to purchase alcohol and eat at McDonald's (id. ¶20). She drank alcohol again the next night in her dorm room while other students went to a Karaoke bar (id. ¶21). That night a student complained of excessive noise in the dorm rooms, and the next day Lu, a CPS teacher and chaperone, was told that some students, including Sabol-Jones, had been drinking alcohol (id. ¶¶22, 23).

Classes were cancelled the next morning, and students attended a mandatory meeting to discuss the previous night's incident (id. ¶24). Students were asked to write reports describing any rules violations (id.). In her report Sabol-Jones admitted to breaking certain minor rules but denied violating the prohibition on alcohol (id. ¶26). While at least one student confessed to an alcohol violation, another student lied that he had unknowingly consumed alcohol after a Chinese student had brought it into the dormitory (id. ¶27). Sabol-Jones got wind of that story and presented it to the chaperones when questioned in person (id. ¶28). As the students were walked back to class, one of the chaperones (not Lu) asked them whether they believed in God (id. ¶29). In response Sabol-Jones swore "on God" that she had not consumed alcohol (id.). Lu was present for that conversation and, according to Sabol-Jones, also made certain comments about God (id.).*fn4

Later that day Sabol-Jones appeared again in front of the chaperones, where she was told that the real story had already come to light (id. ¶32). Lu asked Sabol-Jones whether she had been lying; Sabol-Jones began to cry and asked to call her parents, but she was told to finish her story (id. ¶33). Sabol-Jones then admitted to drinking alcohol knowingly and was asked to return to her room to write a statement disclosing all rule violations (id. ¶34). At a later meeting the chaperones said that the trip would not be cancelled, but that any further consumption of alcohol would result in the students being sent home (id. ¶37).

After taking a night train to Beijing, the group spent the next day sightseeing (id. ¶38). That evening they were told to write reflective essays. Some students asked to call home and were told to wait (id.). Chaperones called the students' parents the next day, at which time both Sabol-Jones and Lu spoke to Sabol-Jones' parents (id. ¶39). Before returning home, Lu wrote an Incident Report detailing the alcohol offenses that the investigation had uncovered (S. St. ¶17). Sabol-Jones finished the trip without incident, and when the group arrived at the airport in Chicago her mother thanked Lu for supporting Sabol-Jones throughout the ordeal (D. St. ¶41).

Back in Chicago Assistant Principal Michael Hermes ("Hermes") met with the accused students, both individually and with their parents, and asked them to write written reports describing the events (id. ¶43). Hermes issued a ten-day suspension to all students who admitted to consuming alcohol, referred them for expulsion proceedings and informed them of their right to appeal (id. ¶¶43, 44). Sabol-Jones' official Misconduct Report stated that she had consumed alcohol knowingly on "one or more occasions between July 6th and July 8th" (S. St. ¶20). At some point before issuing those suspensions, Estrada told Hermes that she believed the Student Code of Conduct ("Student Code") probably required a Group 6-6 disciplinary charge for all alcohol offenses, which required a ten-day suspension and referral for expulsion (D. St. ¶47).*fn5

Estrada, after reviewing the relevant documents and meeting with Sabol-Jones and her parents, affirmed the suspension on appeal (id. ¶¶50). Estrada told them that she would not recommend expulsion and that they had a right to appeal the suspension to Dr. Randall, the Area Instruction Officer (id.). Sabol-Jones again appealed, and Dr. Randall upheld the suspension after reviewing the administrative record and learning that Sabol-Jones had admitted to consuming alcohol knowingly (id. ¶¶51, 55). In discussing Sabol-Jones' suspension, Estrada and Dr. Randall agreed that students' consumption of alcohol on student trips was a serious and growing problem (id. ¶54). Throughout the process Sabol-Jones never heard a School official make derogatory remarks about her race (id. ¶53).

Sabol-Jones' suspension was delayed and split into two five-day periods to accommodate her college interview schedule and the start of classes (S. St. ¶43).*fn6 She served between two and three days of her ten-day suspension before filing for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in the Circuit Court of Cook County. That court stayed the suspension.

Sabol-Jones' similarly charged classmates served their full ten-day suspensions, participated in expulsion proceedings and attended drug and alcohol seminars. Due to the stay of her suspension pending the resolution of this lawsuit, Sabol-Jones did none of those things. She is now ...

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