Jury doesn’t award mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar judg­ment in geo bee case

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - By Made­line Buck­ley

A fed­eral jury on Fri­day de­clined to award a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar judg­ment to a fam­ily ac­cused by their Oak Brook school district of try­ing to cheat in a ge­og­ra­phy bee in 2016, rul­ing in fa­vor of the school board on most counts.

Bar­ring an ap­peal, the ver­dict puts to bed years of costly lit­i­ga­tion af­ter an Oak Brook fam­ily ac­cused a western sub­ur­ban school district of trash­ing their rep­u­ta­tion with ac­cu­sa­tions of cheat­ing in a pre­lim­i­nary round of a na­tional ge­og­ra­phy bee.

The jury heard clos­ing ar­gu­ments in the law­suit af­ter five days of tes­ti­mony over whether But­ler School District 53 acted ap­pro­pri­ately when it ac­cused Ko­mal Julka of fraud­u­lently pur­chas­ing an­swers to a ge­og­ra­phy bee in which her two sons, then 9 and 11 years old, planned to com­pete in Jan­uary 2016.

Ko­mal Julka, her hus­band, Dr. Rahul Julka, a DuPage County sur­geon, and their sons, now 13 and 15, asked the jury to award them nearly $13 mil­lion. They asked for an award of $5 mil­lion for each of the boys, $1.9 mil­lion for Rahul Julka and $1 mil­lion for Ko­mal Julka, ar­gu­ing that they thought they were pur­chas­ing study ma­te­ri­als for the ge­og­ra­phy bee.

“How much is your rep­u­ta­tion in the com­mu­nity worth?” Dan Her­bert, the Julka fam­ily’s at­tor­ney, asked the jury. “A lot more than the mil­lions we are ask­ing for.”

The school district, though, has main­tained that

Ko­mal Julka know­ingly reg­is­tered as a “fraud­u­lent” home school provider to pur­chase the ge­og­ra­phy bee ques­tions from the com­pany that ad­min­is­tered the bee. “Any emo­tional dis­tress (the boys) sus­tained was be­cause of what the mother did,” the district’s at­tor­ney, Darcy Proc­tor, said in clos­ing ar­gu­ments.

The week­long trial was held be­fore U.S. District Judge Matthew Ken­nelly at the Dirk­sen U.S. Court­house in the Loop.

Ken­nelly pre­vi­ously dis­missed some counts of the law­suit, but al­lowed two to go for­ward: that the school district in­ten­tion­ally caused the fam­ily emo­tional dis­tress and that the school con­ducted an im­proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion and re­tal­i­ated against the older boy when the fam­ily filed a griev­ance against the school by in­sert­ing neg­a­tive records into his file.

The jury found for the school board and its em­ploy­ees and against each Julka fam­ily mem­ber in all cases ex­cept one, where it ren­dered a ver­dict in fa­vor of Dr. Rahul Julka. Still, it awarded no com­pen­satory dam­ages.

The Tri­bune was not able to reach Ko­mal Julka or her at­tor­ney for com­ment Fri­day evening. School district of­fi­cials did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on the ver­dict.

The Julka fam­ily has said they ob­tained the test ma­te­rial un­in­ten­tion­ally and that the school’s process of is­su­ing pun­ish­ment was se­cre­tive and un­fair when it barred the boys from par­tic­i­pat­ing in fu­ture con­tests and added a note to their school records. Their at­tor­neys ar­gued that the boys will be “branded as cheaters” for the rest of their lives.

“This is go­ing to stay with them for the rest of their lives,” said El­iz­a­beth Fleming, one of their at­tor­neys.

In the fed­eral suit, the Julka fam­ily says the boys’ un­cle, who was help­ing them study, went to the ge­og­ra­phy bee’s web­site and pur­chased what the fam­ily thought were study ma­te­ri­als to pre­pare for the con­test. The un­cle pur­chased the ma­te­rial with the mother’s credit card, the suit says. He gave his home ad­dress and the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety did a back­ground check.

But at­tor­neys for the school district said Ko­mal Julka knew she had pur­chased what she be­lieved to be the ac­tual ge­og­ra­phy bee an­swers.

Proc­tor said Ko­mal Julka of­fered to an­other mother to trade the ge­og­ra­phy ma­te­ri­als for an­swers to an­other math com­pe­ti­tion. Proc­tor said Julka told that woman she had the “ac­tual ques­tions.”

How­ever, the woman did not have an­swers to the math com­pe­ti­tion and was hor­ri­fied af­ter the con­ver­sa­tion with Ko­mal Julka, the school district has said.

That woman told Ko­mal Julka to re­port the al­leged cheat­ing, Proc­tor said.

Ko­mal Julka re­ported the in­ci­dent to the school, and she and her hus­band with­drew the boys from the com­pe­ti­tion.

“Do not buy it,” Proc­tor told the jury. “It is be­cause of Mrs. Julka’s mis­con­duct that we are here to­day.”

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