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U.S. District Court Allows Constitutional Violation Claims To Proceed Against Administrators Of Butler School District 53 For Unlawful Seizure Of 9-Year Old Boy

For Immediate Release: March 22, 2018

Contact: Craig M. Sandberg, 833.726.3237, craig@sandberglaw.com

Chicago, IL – A federal judge agreed Plaintiffs properly alleged claims for constitutional violations for unlawful seizure (U.S. Const., amend. IV, and Article I, Section 6 of Illinois Constitution of 1970) against Butler School District 53 (the "District") Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom, Kelly Voliva (the former Principal of the District’s Brook Forest Elementary School ("Brook Forest")), and Brook Forest Assistant Principal Lisa Owen (collectively, the "Administrator Defendants").

On March 22, 2018, the Court issued its Memorandum Opinion and Order. "In the Court's view, plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to state a claim that the Administrators violated A's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. Specifically, plaintiffs allege the following: Wennstrom received information from a parent in the District that A's parent had that year's GeoBee questions and was using them to prepare A for the competition. A few days later, on January 19, 2016, A participated in the first day of the GeoBee, but Assistant Principal Owen entered A's classroom later that day and told him that he needed to get up from his desk and come with her to Principal Voliva's office. A had never before been to the principal’s office. When they arrived at Voliva's office, Voliva and Superintendent Wennstrom were there." Jain v. Butler Sch. Dist. 53, 303 F. Supp. 3d 672, 681 (N.D. Ill., 2018)

The Court continued, "All three administrators proceeded to ask A a series of questions, beginning with, 'Do you know why you’re here?' A replied that he did not. Wennstrom asked A about WordMasters and noted that he had had a perfect score in that competition. Then she asked him about how he had studied for the GeoBee; when he described various study aids that he had used and tried to explain how he had studied, he was told to answer only 'yes' or 'no' to the administrators’ questions “as if in a 'court of law.' Wennstrom asked A how he had done on that morning's session of the GeoBee, and A said, 'fine,' but that he had missed a question. Wennstrom then showed A questions from the morning rounds, asked him if his mother had shown him any of those questions, and said 'Do not lie. I know the truth.' Owen added, 'Don't cry. You can’t cry.' A was nervous, scared, and shaking. None of the administrators acted as A's advocate or tried to protect him. They used 'mean' and 'raised' voices to suggest that A had done 'certain things that he did not do.' They asked him 'dozens and dozens of questions,' made him sit at a computer screen and review GeoBee questions, and repeatedly humiliated and belittled him. They did not offer A the opportunity to speak with one of his parents, nor were his parents informed of the meeting ahead of time. The Administrators 'intimidated [A] until he falsely made admissions.' The questioning lasted approximately 1.5 hours. 'Effectively, [A] was presented the false choice of telling the truth and not being permitted to end the interrogation, or tell them what they wanted to hear (even when it was not true) in order to get out of their custody.'" Jain, 303 F. Supp. 3d at 681-92.

"...The issue is whether the allegations are sufficient to indicate that A's seizure, under the circumstances presented, was objectively unreasonable—or, as stated in Wallace [by Wallace v. Batavia Sch. Dist. 101, 68 F.3d 1010 (7th Cir. 1995)], whether it reasonably could be found that the Administrators' actions were 'disproportionate to the interference with the educational process that the situation presented,' 68 F.3d at 1015. Here, a nine-year-old student was allegedly pulled from class and aggressively questioned for an hour and a half about academic dishonesty that was allegedly initiated by his parent, and this questioning was conducted simultaneously by three high-ranking administrators, including the District Superintendent. Those administrators allegedly intimidated and belittled A; told him he could only answer 'yes' or 'no'; and told him that he could not cry. That alleged conduct is viewed in light of the situation, which did not involve disruptive behavior or the need to restore order among students (such as an imminent fight between students, as in Wallace) or other exigent circumstances (such as the need to administer breath tests to students for blood alcohol concentration prior to entering a school function, as in Ziegler v. Martin County Sch. Dist., 831 F.3d 1309 (11th Cir. 2016))." Jain, 303 F. Supp. 3d at 682.

Additionally, the Court allowed the plaintiffs' claim for willful and wanton conduct to continue against the following parties: the District; the District's Board of Education and its members at the relevant time, Lou Paskalides, Rajiv Advani, Liz Chun, Todd Rusteberg, Hitesh Patel, Alan Hanzlik, and Alan Kumar (collectively, the "Board"); Heidi Wennstrom; Kelly Voliva; and Lisa Owen (collectively, the "District Defendants"). The Court highlighted that, "'[u]nder Illinois law, a plaintiff pleading willful and wanton misconduct must establish the same basic elements of a negligence claim, which are the existence of a duty, breach of that duty, and an injury proximately resulting from the breach,' as well as a 'conscious disregard for the welfare of the plaintiff.' Doe-2 v. McLean Cty. Unit Dist. No. 5 Bd. of Dirs., 593 F.3d 507, 514 (7th Cir. 2010)." Jain, 303 F. Supp. 3d at 683. Plaintiffs allege the District Defendants "willfully and wantonly" did the following: failed to properly investigate the allegations of academic dishonesty; "targeted the overwhelming weight of their authority on a 9-year-old boy"; disclosed their "unfounded allegations and unwarranted punishment" to District families and staff; employed a law firm to conduct an "inherently biased and flawed investigation"; and "continue to single out" A "for different treatment than his peers."

The fact this case will be permitted to proceed is not only important to the named plaintiffs, but, also, to greater community. Notably, when "[a] plaintiff who obtains relief in a civil rights suit does so not for himself alone but also as a private attorney general, vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority." Grosvenor v. Brienen, 801 F.2d 944, 946 (7th Cir., 1986) (citing H.R. Rep. 1558, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. p. 2 (1976) (quoting Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402, 88 S.Ct. 964, 966, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263 (1968) (per curiam)).

WHAT: Jain v. Butler Sch. Dist. 53, 303 F. Supp. 3d 672, 681 (N.D. Ill., 2018)

WHERE: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse, 219 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois

 

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