United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
A.J. and R.J., minor children, by Rahul Julka, their father and next friend, RAHUL JULKA, and KOMAL JULKA, Plaintiffs,
BUTLER ILLINOIS SCHOOL DISTRICT #53, BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR BUTLER ILLINOIS SCHOOL DISTRICT #53, HEIDI WENNSTROM, KELLY VOLIVA, ALAN HANZLIK, ROBBINS SCHWARTZ, CAROLINE ROSELLI, LIBBY N. MASSEY, VANDANA BADLANI, and RAVI BADLANI, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
and Rahul Julka are the parents of two elementary-age
children, A.J. and R.J., who planned to compete in the 2016
National Geographic Bee. After the school district discovered
that Komal had improperly obtained the contest questions in
advance, it disciplined her and her children for academic
dishonesty. Komal, Rahul, A.J., and R.J. have sued the
district and a number of other defendants, alleging that the
school's disciplinary procedures and resulting sanctions
violated their constitutional rights and intentionally
inflicted emotional distress in violation of Illinois law.
The defendants have moved for summary judgment.
Komal's alleged misconduct and the district's
and R.J. were students at an elementary school in Butler
School District #53, which is managed by the district's
board of education. Each year, the school participates in the
National Geographic Bee (called the GeoBee for short), a
nationwide academic competition. A.J. and R.J. hoped to
participate in the 2016 GeoBee, and their mother, Komal
Julka, sought out study materials to help them prepare for
January 2016, several days before the GeoBee began, Komal
called Vandana Badlani, the mother of two other students in
the district, to share study materials she had obtained.
After Komal read several questions over the phone, Badlani
began to suspect that Komal had in fact obtained the real
GeoBee questions. Komal later testified during her deposition
that she had obtained the questions through her brother,
although the defendants contend that Komal herself falsely
registered as a homeschool teacher in order to access them.
Komal further testified that she believed the questions were
study materials, not the actual GeoBee questions.
next day, Komal and Badlani spoke on the phone again. Badlani
urged Komal to turn over the questions to the school's
principal, Kelly Voliva. Unbeknownst to Komal, Badlani's
husband Ravi recorded Badlani's end of the conversation
using his cellular phone.
contacted the president of the school's parent-teacher
organization about what she believed was Komal's attempt
to cheat at the competition. The PTO president relayed this
allegation to the district's superintendent, Heidi
Wennstrom, who spoke to Badlani about her conversations with
Komal. Badlani sent Wennstrom the study questions that Komal
had read to her over the phone, and Wennstrom determined that
two of them were contest questions for the upcoming GeoBee.
After speaking with Badlani, Wennstrom relayed these events
to Voliva, the school's principal, and Alan Hanzlik, the
school board president.
consultation with Hanzlik, Wennstrom conducted an
investigation in which she interviewed Komal, R.J., and the
Badlanis and listened to the Badlanis' audio recording of
the phone conversation between Komal and Vandana Badlani.
Wennstrom concluded that the Julkas had engaged in academic
dishonesty. As a sanction, she prohibited A.J. and R.J. from
engaging in any academic competitions and barred Komal from
serving as a parent volunteer for those competitions.
Wennstrom did not sanction Vandana Badlani, however, because
she concluded that Badlani had done nothing wrong.
letter to Komal and Rahul dated February 8, 2016, Wennstrom
summarized her findings and explained the sanctions. Among
her findings, Wennstrom wrote, "The academic dishonesty
and cheating which you and your children engaged
[sic] put all of the District students participating
in the contest and the District at risk of being banned from
current and future National Geographic Bee contests."
Letter from H. Wennstrom to R. Julka (Feb. 8, 2016), Ex. 1 to
K. Julka Dep., Defs.' Ex. E, dkt. no. 161-1, at 2. That
same day, Wennstrom also sent a letter to all of the families
in the district in which she generally described the
administrative response to the Julkas' conduct without
identifying them by name.
Grievance proceedings and litigation
February 16, Komal and Rahul Julka filed a grievance with the
school board in which they alleged that Wennstrom handled the
investigation poorly and that her findings were inaccurate.
Particularly relevant to this case, the Julkas objected to
Wennstrom's statement that A.J. and R.J., in addition to
Komal and Rahul, had engaged in academic dishonesty.
response to the grievance, the school district hired Libby
Massey, an attorney with the law firm Robbins Schwartz that
had represented the school district for over thirty years, to
investigate the Julkas' allegations. Massey issued her
thirty-page report on April 9, 2016. The school board
ultimately accepted Massey's recommendations, which
included maintaining the sanctions against Komal, A.J., and
R.J. while removing from the disciplinary letters any
reference to academic dishonesty on the part of the children.
In consultation with another Robbins Schwartz attorney,
Caroline Roselli, Hanzlik prepared a letter dated April 15,
2016 notifying the Julkas of the board's decision.
Julkas also requested a hearing under the Illinois Student
School Records Act, 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 10/7, to challenge
the decision to place the February 8 and April 15
disciplinary letters into A.J.'s and R.J.'s student
files. The school district appointed hearing officer Jennifer
Mueller to oversee the Julkas' challenge. At the August
2016 hearing, Mueller heard testimony and reviewed
documentary evidence and found that that the current versions
of the letters-from which any reference to academic
dishonesty by A.J. or R.J. had been removed-were properly
included in the students' files. The Julkas appealed this
decision to the regional superintendent of schools for DuPage
County, who concurred with Mueller's conclusion.
Julkas filed two lawsuits in Illinois state court. In the
first suit, they sought administrative review of the
district's decision in response to their grievance.
Before the state court could reach a decision on the merits,
however, the school district removed the letters from the
students' files, and the court dismissed the case as
moot. In the second suit, the Julkas challenged the decisions
regarding their claims under the Student School Records Act.
The Court is unable to readily determine the disposition of
that case from the evidence submitted by the parties.
Komal, Rahul, A.J., and R.J. filed this lawsuit in April
2017. They have sued three groups of defendants. The first
group-which the Court will refer to collectively as the
school district defendants-includes the school district, the
school board, principal Voliva, superintendent Wennstrom, and
school board president Hanzlik. The second group comprises