EAST ROCKHILL — A federal appeals court has affirmed previous federal district court decisions in favor of the Pennridge School District in a case in which a former student accused the district of discrimination and deliberate indifference to her pleas for help.
The decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia was filed July 30.
The lawsuit on behalf of Modupe Williams cited seven incidents involving district staff or fellow students while she was a Pennridge student between 2010 and 2012, the decision said.
In addition to the district, the suit named former Pennridge High School Principal Tom Creedon and Assistant Principal Nicholas Schoonover as defendants.
"We are satisfied that all seven incidents, taken separately or as a whole, fail to establish a prima facie case of intentional discrimination," the court said.
"With regard to willful discrimination, the only evidence of intent Modupe proffered to support her claim was to draw an inference that defendants acted against her because she was an African-American female. But as we have repeatedly held, evidence of disparate treatment, alone, is insufficient to establish discriminatory intent," the decision said. "Indeed, even if we ignore defendants' stated non-discriminatory reasons to justify their conduct, there was still no evidence that they had an intent to discriminate."
One of the incidents cited involved harassing phone calls from three fellow students who were identified and adjudicated in the juvenile courts, the decision said.
Other than the phone calls, none of the incidents amounted to severe and discriminatory harassment, the court said.
"Indeed, in two of the three incidents on which she relies as evidence of harassment, the comments made about her by fellow students were not even directed at her — she either overheard, or later found out from a third party about, those comments. It cannot be said that she was 'harassed' by fellow students when they had not intended for her to hear those comments," the decision said.
The incidents were not related and the district did not have the power to stop the comments, the court said.
"To the extent she feared other students may continue to make disparaging remarks about her to each other, defendants obviously lacked the power to prevent them from making derogatory comments — while schools may exert substantial control over their students, they do not have the power to command the entire student body to change its opinion of a single student," the decision said.
The court said there was no evidence of the school district having shown deliberate indifference and dismissed the lawsuit's retaliation claim.
"Despite the fact that the phone calls were made outside of the school, and that the police informed defendants not to be involved, defendants nevertheless spoke to the offending students on two separate occasions. Moreover, after juvenile charges were filed against the offenders and they were required to apologize formally to Modupe and perform community service, she did not complain that the disposition of the cases was insufficient nor demand further action. And most importantly, she did not receive any more harassing phone call after defendants became involved in the matter," the decision said.
Williams ultimately switched to another school, which the lawsuit claimed was because Pennridge essentially caused her to leave, but the decision to change schools was voluntary, the court said.
The appeal was heard by judges Michael Chagares, Joseph A. Greenway Jr. and Morton Ira Greenberg, the decision shows.
As of press time, Olugbenga Abiona, who was Williams' attorney, and Pennridge Superintendent Dr. David Bolton had not returned calls for comment on the decision.