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A.J. v. Butler Illinois School District #53

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 26, 2019

A.J. and R.J., minor children, by Rahul Julka, their father and next friend, RAHUL JULKA, and KOMAL JULKA, Plaintiffs,
v.
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

         Komal 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.

         Background

         A. Komal's alleged misconduct and the district's investigation

         A.J. 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 the competition.

         In 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.

         The 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.

         Badlani 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.

         In 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.

         In a 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.

         B. Grievance proceedings and litigation

         On 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.

         In 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.

         The 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.

         The 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.

         Finally, 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 Vandana ...


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