A DuPage County surgeon who says his sons were falsely accused of cheating in a geography bee is suing their Oak Brook school district in federal court for $50 million.
Dr. Rahul Julka, acting as his own attorney, filed his complaint April 14 in Chicago, naming as defendants Butler School District 53 and its school board, including board president Alan Hanzlik and members Alan Kumar, Liz Chun, Lou Paskalides, Rajiv Advani, Todd Rustenberg and Hitesh Patel, as well as Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom and former Brook Forest Elementary School Principal Kelly Voliva. She resigned that post in August 2016. Julka also named attorneys Libby Massey and Caroline Roselli as defendants in his action, as well as an unnamed lawyer, all of the Chicago firm of Robbins Schwartz.
Julka’s sons, identified as R.J. and A.J., were 11 and 9, respectively, in fifth and fourth grade, the week of Jan. 19, 2016, when the school conducted its National Geographic Bee contest. He said the boys studied primarily with his wife’s brother, Trushar Patel, and noted his wife purchased for them study materials made available through the Bee’s website, noting the school gave the website address to all students enrolled in the competition.
On Jan. 15, 2016, Dr. Vandana Badlani called Mrs. Julka to invite the boys to a study group to prepare for the Bee. Mrs. Julka offered to share the study materials, which led to Badlani accusing her of improperly obtaining Bee questions and threatening to report this information to the school. After the Julkas discussed the incident that evening, they decided “the ethical and proper thing to do” was withdraw their sons from the competition and informed the school’s Bee coordinator by email.
Julka said the next morning his wife had a heated phone conversation with Badlani, who persisted in her accusations, and noted Badlani’s husband, Dr. Rai Badlani, was “yelling angrily in the background.” At 8 a.m. the next school day, Julka’s wife went to the school to meet with Voliva. A subsequent meeting involving those two as well as Wennstrom and Mrs. Badlani ended with Wennstrom purportedly escorting Julka to her car and expressing her disappointment.
The complaint also said school officials questioned the older son without parental representation and detailed further communications among several involved parties, including a personal email in which Wennstrom allegedly implied the Julkas were not raising their children appropriately and another email allegedly sent to every family in the district regarding an “ ‘extensive investigation’ into purported academic dishonesty.”
Julka said another Wennstrom email sent to the entire faculty and staff “was for the sole reason of having both R.J.’s and A.J.’s reputations tainted, and creating an atmosphere of suspicion and hypervigilance, counter-productive to their education.” He further said a Feb. 11, 2016, email he sent to the school board inquiring about filing a grievance against Wennstrom was forwarded to the superintendent within three minutes, allowing her to instruct board members on how to respond.
The district ultimately banned the boys from all competitive educational events throughout their time in District 53, though Julka detailed one meeting in which officials offered to reduce the ban to two years. Julka said the district’s lawyers should not have agreed to be involved in the dispute, arguing a neutral third party was warranted.
Julka said the actions of school officials and attorneys constitute violations of his sons’ constitutional rights under the 5th, 6th, 8th and 14th amendments. In addition to $50 million for those allegations, he seeks punitive and exemplary damages against Wennstrom, Voliva and Hanzlik.
The federal complaint follows a lawsuit Julka filed in DuPage County Circuit Court in the spring of 2016, asking a judge to review their decisions related to his sons. That case remains pending, according to DuPage County online court records.