Oak Brook family wants $50M over geography bee cheating allegations

An Oak Brook family has filed a federal lawsuit seeking more than $50 million in damages from Butler Elementary District 53, claiming their two sons were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment related to allegations of cheating in a geography bee.

The suit was filed Friday by Rahul Julka on behalf of his two sons. 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 last year's National Geographic Bee regional competition at Brook Forest Elementary School.

The lawsuit claims the district violated three constitutional amendments by denying the plaintiffs due process and inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on the boys.

District 53 Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom on Tuesday said the district “is vigorously defending the claims.”

“The lawsuit is frivolous,” she wrote in an email to the Daily Herald. “All students are treated kindly and honorably in Butler School District 53.”

The suit says the district didn't allow the plaintiff's side of the dispute to be heard and that the resulting punishment caused the boys — ages 9 and 11 at the time — to lose friends, bear the brunt of insults and lose “overall social interaction.”

It also calls for the court to mandate “the correction of school records” and to strike “the punishment imposed (on the two boys) barring them from participating in academic contests and extracurricular academic activities.”

The dispute dates to early 2016 when the district, after a six-week investigation, determined that Julka's wife, Komal, registered as a “fraudulent” home school provider and paid for the questions to the geographic bee with her credit card.

Administrators said they began receiving complaints Jan. 15, 2016, about Komal Julka admitting to “jailbreaking” the geography bee system and gaining access to test questions.

The Julkas have denied any wrongdoing.

In an email Tuesday, Komal Julka said the family hopes the board of education “will look into this matter” once new members are seated in the wake of the April 4 election.

“No one really wants to sue a school their children attend,” she said, “but there was no other way to let everyone know what really is going on.”

The Julkas also filed a lawsuit last year against the district and school board in DuPage County Circuit Court seeking to eliminate the sanctions and have letters and documents related to the district investigation removed from the boys' files. A hearing on the DuPage case is next set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, April 25.

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