Oak Brook family suing school district over cheating scandal
Butler Elementary District 53 school officials hope a mid-July court date sparks movement in a months-old cheating scandal that has plagued the district and an Oak Brook family.
A DuPage County judge is expected on July 18 to hear a lawsuit brought by a father over procedures officials used when sanctioning his 9- and 11-year-old sons who were accused of planning to cheat during this year's National Geographic Bee regional competition.
The boys were banned from all academic competitions in the district after officials accused their parents of intentionally purchasing and downloading test questions days before the Jan. 19 GeoBee at Brook Forest Elementary School.
Dr. Rahul Julka, a DuPage County surgeon, filed the lawsuit last month against school board members on behalf of his children. The lawsuit seeks to eliminate the sanctions and have letters and documents related to a district investigation into the parents removed from the boys' school files.
Neither the Julkas nor their attorney returned calls Thursday, but in their lawsuit they deny any wrongdoing.
According to district officials and exhibits attached to the 33-page lawsuit, a six-week investigation determined Julka's wife, Komal, registered as a "fraudulent" home school provider and paid for the questions with her credit card.
Administrators began receiving complaints Jan. 15 about Julka admitting to "jailbreaking" the geography bee system and gaining access to test questions. According to exhibits filed in the lawsuit, another parent claims to have twice urged the Julkas to remove their children from the competition, which they eventually did.
"When we became aware there might be two families who gained access, inappropriately so, to contest questions, we basically stopped and did a month-and-a-half investigation, during which all of the correct people were interviewed," board President Alan Hanzlik said Thursday. "When we were done, we had all the data we needed and it became clear to (Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom) that there was a definitive effort by two parents who did gain access and were intending to use that material to gain an advantage in the geography bee."
Hanzlik said the board immediately upheld the sanctions recommended by Wennstrom.
In an April 15 letter to the Julkas, administrators accused Komal Julka of contradicting herself when she first said she downloaded the test questions accidentally. According to court records, she also said she paid for what she thought was a study guide so an uncle could help the children prepare.
Komal Julka also is accused of providing the email account and password to the second family, whose child participated in the bee but was later disqualified and placed on similar sanctions. Hanzlik declined to comment regarding the second family, saying they have "not yet filed a lawsuit, so their information is not public."
Hanzlik called the lawsuit and the sanctions leading to it "an unfortunate but necessary path."
According to the lawsuit, both families requested and participated in administrative hearings that prompted an "independent review" by a district-hired attorney, who upheld the initial findings.
Hanzlik defended having the independent review conducted by the same law firm that represents the district.
"The independent investigator works within the law firm we work with that knows Illinois school law," he said. "So, yes, it's the same law firm, but the attorney who did the investigation is not at all associated with the attorney we work with."
Julka filed the lawsuit shortly after the review upheld the previous findings.
"Butler District 53 has an untarnished reputation as a very high performing district of 400 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade and we have zero tolerance for dishonesty," Hanzlik said. "The moment you turn your shoulder is the day you ruin that reputation that took decades to build."
Administrators included documents related to the investigation in the students' files. And their parents are prohibited from volunteering in academic competitions within the school system.
Hanzlik said there was a chance of imposing less strict sanctions, but the families showed no signs of remorse.
"We have conclusive proof there was intent to cheat by the parents and that children were prepped with that material," Hanzlik said. "Not once have these families acknowledged their wrongdoing or apologized for making a mistake. So we can't jeopardize the reputation of the school and the district by allowing them to participate in those kinds of contests."
Hanzlik also confirmed the district has spent more than $100,000 in legal fees and administrative time on the case.
"Believe me, there are much more important things we'd rather be spending that money on, but we just can't expose the district like that," he said.
Administrators acknowledged sending an email Wednesday to all district families outlining the upcoming court battle. The email, obtained by the Daily Herald, does not name the Julkas but says the district continues to receive complaints and multiple other requests requiring additional time and funds, including freedom of information act requests and the Julkas' lawsuit against the district.
"The Board of Education had hoped that the conclusion of the 2015-2016 school year would bring this matter to a close and the district and its teachers could again focus their attention to the education and mission of Butler 53," the email said. "However, the continued requests, complaints, lawsuits and threats of negative publicity from the involved families require ongoing attention from the (board and administration,)" the email states. "Though we cannot discuss specifics, the (board) is resolute in its obligation to protect Butler 53's reputation and will pursue every legal option available to stop this destructive behavior against our educational mission and, ultimately, property values within District 53."
Hanzlik said the district will release an additional statement Friday, once all board members have reviewed it.