Senate Bill 100- Big Changes for School Districts and Student Discipline

The recently enacted Senate Bill 100 (Public Act 099-0456) goes into effect September 15, 2016 and makes significant changes to the Illinois School Code provisions on student discipline. The School Code will now distinguish between “short-term” out-of-school suspensions of one to three days, and “long-term” out-of-school suspensions of four or more days, as well as expulsions. The revisions set forth clear standards that must be met in order for a school board to suspend or expel a student, while placing a clear emphasis on the need for detailed documentation supporting such discipline. The changes in the law will require school districts to re-evaluate their student handbooks and board policies to ensure that they incorporate these new requirements, as well as others set forth by the Bill, including a prohibition on “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies and mandatory annual meetings for parent-teacher advisory committees. Contact MWWRA’s school attorneys for a more comprehensive review of the changes mandated by Senate Bill 100 and how they may affect your school district or student.

Advertisements

The “Berlin Wall of Steel:” What School Districts and Municipalities Can Learn From the Crystal Lake South High School Bleacher Case

Crystal Lake South High School made headlines this fall when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the school was required to follow the city zoning and storm water ordinances, despite the fact that it was a public school operating under the Illinois School Code. Significantly, this will likely result in the recently constructed 1.2 million dollar bleachers being torn down, pursuant to the Circuit Court’s 2014 order, which had been stayed pending appeal.

The lawsuit was initiated when residents, who owned properties abutting the football field (and the newly constructed bleachers), complained that the bleacher expansion project was unlawful and negatively impacted their property values (dubbing it the “Berlin Wall of Steel”). When the City of Crystal Lake learned of the project, it informed the school board that it must cease all construction activities until all of the city’s zoning, storm water, and permitting requirements were met. The school district ignored this directive, maintaining that as a school district engaging in construction activities on school property, it was exempt from municipal zoning provisions. As part of its response, the school district filed a third-party complaint against the City of Crystal Lake, seeking declaratory judgment on the issue of whether, as a public school district, it was subject to the city’s zoning and storm water regulations.

The Illinois Supreme Court found in favor of the city, holding that the school district was subject to both the city’s zoning and storm water ordinances. In its analysis, it disagreed with the school district’s characterization of Section 10-22.13a of the Illinois School Code (provision authorizing a school district to seek zoning changes). While the district contended that this section of the statute was permissive, rather than mandatory, the Court found that the district’s interpretation was unreasonable because it was not supported by the plain language of the statute. In furtherance of its analysis, the Court cited Wilmette Park District v. Village of Wilmette, 112 Ill. 2d 6 (1986) as analogous, noting “absent an explicit statutory grant of immunity, the mere fact that…a local unit of government, has a statutory duty…cannot be extended to support the inference that it can exercise its authority without regard to the zoning ordinance of its host municipality.”

The Court also rejected the school district’s contention that the Illinois School Code limited review of school construction plans to the provisions set forth in the “Health/Life Safety Code for Public Schools.” Again, citing the plain language of the statute, the Court found that while the Health/Life Safety Code established minimum construction standards for facilities, it did not conflict with the type of issues addressed in zoning, and therefore did not preempt the city’s zoning and storm water ordinances.

While the City of Crystal Lake is a home-rule municipality, the court’s analysis of the issue and its findings regarding the municipal authority to regulate zoning matters does not cite any authority that would exclude non-home rule municipalities from its holding.

By: Laura M. Julien

For more information on public land use and zoning matters, please contact Steven A. Andersson, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: saa@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com.

When Technology Outpaces the Law – The Illinois Freedom of Information Act and Personal Electronic Devices

Openness and transparency in government is critical to garnering the confidence and support of the general public. From the nation’s highest offices in the White House to the day-to-day operations in a local city hall, the operations of government are continuously under scrutiny.

Enacted on July 1, 1984, the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), like the federal Freedom of Information Act, was adopted on the premise that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees…” and to promote “transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government.”

However, since its inception, technological advances have moved faster than the law has been able to keep up (the law itself acknowledges that “technology may advance at a rate that outpaces its ability to address those advances legislatively”). In recent years, devices such as smart phones have not only made information readily available, but also increased the number of ways in which parties can electronically communicate with one another (i.e. text messaging, e-mailing, and video chatting). However, the law at present only generally references “electronic communications” and makes no distinction between the various methods that one may utilize. Moreover, many entities have implemented “bring your own device” policies, requiring employees to conduct work-related business on their personal devices. As a consequence, determining whether information belongs to the public or private domain has become increasingly more difficult.

This is illustrated by a recent controversy in Chicago, which raises the question whether e-mails, pertaining to public matters but sent from private accounts or personal devices, are “public records” under FOIA. On September 24, 2015, the Chicago Tribune sued the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor and the Mayor for injunctive and declaratory relief for, amongst other things, production of “improperly held records” from “private” accounts. The Chicago Tribune asserted that such information, insofar as it pertains to public business, remains subject to FOIA. The Office of the Mayor disagrees, asserting the fact that such information was not in possession or under the control of the public body.

A similar issue was addressed in City of Champaign v. Madigan, 992 N.E.2d 629 (2013), a case in which members of the city council were found to be sending text messages to one another on their personal electronic devices during a city council meeting. Despite the private nature of the device, the crux of the court’s assessment came down to examining what constitutes the “public body.” In that case, the text messages were found to be “public record” by virtue of the fact that they were sent at a time while the public body was convened. The court, however, acknowledged “notably, section 2(a) [of FOIA] does not include the individual members of those bodies in the definition of ‘public body.’” Citing Quinn v. Stone, 570 N.E.3d 676, 677 (1991), the court further emphasized that “an individual city council member, alone, cannot conduct the business of a public body… [i]nstead, a quorum of city council members is necessary to make a binding decision.”

However, even in the event that the court does take on a FOIA question, the decisions are often narrow in scope. While basic principles can be imputed, public entities have been placed in the precarious position of having to serve as both the gatekeeper and the arbiter of such requests, careful to strike the correct balance between a host of competing interests (an employee’s right to privacy in their personal information with the public’s right to access public information), while simultaneously applying a law that admittedly can’t provide clear guidance to technological advances.

There are steps that public employers can take to help mitigate some of these issues. First and foremost, it is imperative that all public employees understand FOIA and its various implications. Second, public employers should make an ongoing effort to stay abreast of technological advances, create strong internal policies regarding the use of technology, and conduct regular training sessions regarding the same. These policies should encourage means that help segregate information in the public domain from that of the employee as a private individual. Finally, public employers should not hesitate to contact legal counsel if they have any questions, as handling these matters correctly from the beginning can help avoid potential problems down the line.

By: Laura M. Julien

For more information on the Freedom of Information Act, and how it may affect you as an employer or employee, or any other employment law issues, please contact Peter K. Wilson, Bernard K. Weiler, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: pkw@mickeywilson.com; bkw@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com.