Judge Awards $500,000 Against School District for Student Bullying
A Pennsylvania Judge has ordered the School District of Pennsylvania to pay $500,000, plus attorney fees, to the family of a former student who claimed the school district failed to prevent severe bullying over her gender identity at four city schools. This ruling marks the first time Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination statute has been used to hold a school district accountable for student-on-student bullying.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”)1, prohibits sex discrimination. Although most commonly alleged in the employment context, the Judge held the student had a cause of action against the school district under the PHRA based on gender-related bullying.
The female student began to experience the gender-based bullying and harassment in elementary school when her classmates began to tease, taunt and harass her because of her gender presentation, such as not conforming to societal expectations for girls in terms of appearance and dress. She was physically assaulted by a male student, who also teased her with sexualized taunts. The student’s mother notified the school of the bullying; however, the bullying continued into middle school. The student was eventually transferred to another middle school mid-year after being punched, shoved, teased with sexualized epithets and had objects thrown at her. The bullying occurred on the school bus, in the hallways and in the classrooms. The student’s mother again reported to school officials, as well as sent letters to the student’s teachers explaining the bullying, but the bullying continued. In high school, the student continued to be bullied and efforts by staff were “nonexistent.” The student eventually enrolled in a cyber charter school in the tenth grade.
As a result of the sexual harassment and bullying, the student suffered “physical and psychological harm, depression and anxiety.” She also engaged in self-harm, had suicidal ideation and developed “Complex Type Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” which occurs after prolonged, repeated trauma, according to the Judge’s ruling.
This decision has a major impact on Pennsylvania’s PHRA and created an avenue for students and their parents to claim gender-based bullying and sexual harassment against a school district due to a student’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes and/or societal norms. It begs the question: Will other states follow? Current federal laws, such as Title IX and §1983, can also provide the basis for similar bullying or sexual harassment claims based on gender stereotyping. Districts should ensure their policies and procedures for responding to bullying and harassment claims are regularly updated and disseminated, as well as invest in periodic training for staff on bullying, harassment and Title IX.
If you have any questions regarding this decision, or would like to schedule training on Bullying and Harassment for your District, please contact Kara T. Rozin or another member of the Clark Hill Education Group.
1 Comparable to Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.