EAST ROCKHILL >> The Pennridge School District and two top administrators “created a sexually hostile environment” for a female student by not taking action to protect her from harassment after she reported having been abused by her boyfriend, a lawsuit filed Aug. 9 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania says.
The lawsuit, on behalf of 18-year-old “Jane Doe,” who graduated this year from Pennridge, was filed by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center and the DLA Piper law firm. Along with the school district, Superintendent Jacqueline Rattigan and Pennridge High School Principal Gina DeBona are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Contacted for this article, Rattigan said she could not comment on any pending lawsuits.
The lawsuit says when Doe was a sophomore at Pennridge High School during the 2014-15 school year, her boyfriend, a junior at the school, physically and verbally abused her, after which she broke up with him.
Following the breakup, she was harassed in and out of school, along with on social media, and reported those incidents to school officials, the suit says.
“PHS’s failure to respond to Miss Doe’s repeated reports of sex-based harassment only compounded matters by creating an environment that empowered her abuser and his friends to retaliate against Miss Doe for reporting the sex-based harassment,” the lawsuit says.
Over the summer following her sophomore year, when she and her harassers were not attending school, the harassment stopped, but resumed when school began again for her junior year, the lawsuit says.
When she showed school officials a photo of a bruise on her shoulder from an assault, the lawsuit says, she was told to simply stay away from the boy who did it. On another occasion in which she reported an attempt to hit her on the face when she was in the high school, she was told the district could not take any action because there were no security cameras in that part of the building, the lawsuit says. During a meeting between Doe’s father and a school official, the official referred to Doe as a “drama queen” and “crazy,” the lawsuit says.
By March of 2016, Doe had gone to district officials no less than 50 times to report the harassment, missed school days and had dropped extracurricular activities, and her grades were falling, the lawsuit says.
Doe and her parents requested that she be separated at school from her ex-boyfriend, or preferably, that he be removed from the school, but were told that she could either remain at the school without any additional accommodations or that she could go to an alternative school, the lawsuit says.
“Miss Doe did not want to leave PHS, but she and her parents felt they had no choice,” the lawsuit says.
At the alternative school, she received only six hours of class time per week and was given assignment packets for classes she had taken in eighth and ninth grade, the suit says.
Because of the simplicity of the curriculum at the alternative school, Doe completed her high school education in a month and a half — more than a year before her June 2017 graduation, the lawsuit says. Doe will be beginning college in the fall and studying psychology; she is planning to become a mental health counselor, the lawsuit says.
“Miss Doe now feels the responsibility to stand up for herself and other students who have lost the opportunity to learn — or may lose that opportunity in the future — because of PSD’s pattern and practice of pushing harassment victims out of school. Miss Doe hopes that by bringing suit, she will help ensure future PDS [sic] students are not mistreated as she was,” the lawsuit says.
Along with asking for compensatory and punitive damages, the lawsuit, which says the district violated laws prohibiting sex discrimination in education, the U.S. Constitution and state laws, asks that Pennridge be ordered to revise its policies, procedures and practices.
“I turned to my school for help but they punished me instead,” Doe said in a National Women’s Law Center release. “Like many victims of dating violence, I was scared to reach out for help, but I knew I needed Pennridge to keep me safe and in school. But no matter what evidence I showed them, no matter how much I begged for help, Pennridge did nothing. Almost every day, my abuser and his friends harassed me. My grades dropped from As and Bs to Cs and Ds. I did not feel safe walking around my school. Rather than fix the problem, Pennridge sent me to an alternative school, where I was deprived of a real education. I’m speaking up so Pennridge never again treats a student like it treated me and other students.”
Doe is the third former Pennridge student this year represented by the NWLC in federal lawsuits alleging the district failed to act to protect female students from harassment.
The first lawsuit, originally filed in 2015, and which the NWLC has since joined, accuses the district of doing nothing to stop “a sustained campaign of race- and sex-based harassment by classmates.”
The second, filed in May, accuses the district of failing to come to the aid of a student after she reported having been raped off-campus by a fellow student and subsequently of being harassed.
“Pennridge School District’s utter disregard for Jane’s education and safety is both illegal and deeply unethical,” NWLC President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves said in the NWLC release for the Jane Doe lawsuit. “Jane’s experience is disturbingly similar to those of the two other clients we represent in separate lawsuits against the same school district. Pennridge officials have consistently demonstrated an alarming pattern of pushing survivors of gender violence out of school rather than intervening to stop the abuse, as they are legally required to do. The school’s mistreatment of students like Jane must stop.”