Federal Trial Court Refuses to Dismiss Two Lawsuits Arising from Alleged Cheating on Spelling Bee

Approximately two years ago, the Superintendent of Butler School District No. 53 received a complaint that the parents of students at the school had obtained the test questions for the Geo Bee and were preparing their students prior to the competition. The Superintendent investigated the complaint and determined that the parents and their children cheated. As a consequence, the students were prohibited from participating in any District-sponsored academic contests or team competitions. Their parents were prohibited from volunteering in any such events. The District further put letters in the students’ files detailing the alleged misconduct.

The families denied the allegations and filed legal actions in DuPage County court. The state complaints were dismissed as moot after the District removed the discipline from the students’ records as well as the notes regarding the incident from the students’ files. However, the families subsequently filed two separate lawsuits in federal court.

Most recently, the judges presiding over both matters issued orders granting in part and denying in part the District’s motions to dismiss. In the matter filed by Rahul Julka on behalf of himself and his two minor children, Judge Matthew F. Kennelly found that the Plaintiffs pled sufficient facts to permit a reasonable inference that the addition of negative materials into R.J.’s academic file regarding alleged cheating prior to the Geo Bee incident was caused by the filing of the complaint. Therefore, the First Amendment retaliation claim survived. He further found that the Plaintiffs adequately alleged an intentional infliction of emotion distress claim and permitted that claim to survive. Finally, Judge Kennelly determined that the Plaintiffs’ claim for injunctive relief to remove any false or negative information entered into the students’ files was not previously adjudicated in the state lawsuit. Thus, this claim could be brought in federal court. Judge Kennelly dismissed the remaining counts in the complaint.

In the matter filed by S. Jain on her own behalf and on behalf of her son, Judge Ronald A. Guzman determined the Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts for her claim alleging an unlawful seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to survive the District’s motion to dismiss. Specifically, the Plaintiff alleged that after competing in the Geo Bee competition, the Assistant Principal brought the student to the Principal’s office where he was questioned for an hour and a half by three Administrators and was only permitted to give “yes” or “no” answers. Additionally, the Administrators used “mean” and “raised” voices when questioning the student about how he had studied for the bee and whether his mother had shown him the answers from the morning rounds. The Plaintiff alleged that the student was nervous, scared, and shaking. Further, the student was not given the opportunity to speak with his parents.

Though the District denied some of the allegations, Judge Guzman found that these facts were sufficient to support a claim that the Administrators violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. Judge Guzman further denied dismissing the claim for willful and wanton conduct against the District.

The court’s partial denial of the Board’s motion to dismiss means the plaintiffs are permitted to continue litigating their claims. The parties will likely engage in discovery and present arguments to the court on whether the plaintiffs’ claims have merit.

Sign up for our monthly Extra Mile newsletter. We go the extra mile so you don't have to. Subscribe