PA Supreme Court reinstates rape victim’s antibias case

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William C. Bryant Elementary

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week reinstated the antibias case of a rape victim and his mother who claim Philadelphia public-school officials ignored pervasive student-on-student bullying which led to the child’s rape.

The student, identified in court papers as N.B., was raped by another student at the William C. Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia in October 2011. Prior to the rape, N.B. had been subjected to bullying by some classmates who perceived him to be gender non-conforming. He was eight years old at the time of his rape, according to court papers.

N.B. and his mother reported the alleged abuse to his teacher and to school administrators, to no avail. On Nov. 5, 2011, N.B.’s mother withdrew N.B. from the elementary school after learning of the rape, according to court papers.

On Jan. 7, 2014, N.B.’s mother filed an antibias complaint on behalf of N.B. with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. She alleged discrimination by the school district due to N.B.’s sex and race. But PHRC dismissed the complaint, noting that N.B.’s mother missed the 180-day deadline for filing a PHRC complaint by about two years, according to court papers.

N.B.’s mother subsequently filed suit against the school district in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages. But in March 2017, Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson dismissed the suit, citing the missed PHRC deadline. N.B.’s mother filed an appeal with Commonwealth Court, which ruled against her in December 2018.

But on Sept. 16, in 22-page ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated N.B.’s lawsuit. The high court declared that the 180-day PHRC deadline doesn’t start running for minors until they turn 18 and can file their own PHRC complaint.

“[C]hildren, already some of our most vulnerable citizens, should not be subject to the whim or mercy of parents or guardians with respect to the assertion of their legal rights,” the opinion states.

Justices Christine Donahue, Thomas G. Saylor and David N. Wecht dissented from the opinion.

If N.B.’s case cannot be settled, a bench trial in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court is expected. A spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia had no comment.

David J. Berney, an attorney for N.B., said he was “thrilled” with the ruling. “The opinion vindicates the rights of children who have suffered illegal abuse, harassment, and/or discrimination under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act — the commonwealth’s flagship anti-discrimination law,” Berney said in an email. “Under the Commonwealth Court’s interpretation of the law, parents who did not file a complaint of discrimination with the PHRC within 180 days were barred from seeking relief.  But many children — due to the pain that the harassment has caused them — may not disclose the discrimination until years later. And many parents do not even know what to do with that information.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized how unfair it is to demand that a child’s complaint be filed within six months. Instead, the PA Supreme Court has ruled that children have an undisputed right to ask the PHRC for its help and to obtain remedies under the law if their complaint is filed within 180 days after their 18th birthday. This is a great victory for children!”

Morgan G. Williams, PHRC’s interim chief counsel, praised the ruling. “This closes a critical gap that the Court identified: students who are subject to discrimination in school may now upon their 18th birthday, seek redress with the PHRC,” Williams said, in an email. Williams also urged the state legislature to increase the amount of damages that PHRC can award to bias victims in the areas of education, public accommodation, and employment.

Advocacy groups including the Women’s Law Project, the Public Interest Law Center, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, the Education Law Center, and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Inc, issued statements in support of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The Women’s Law Project issued this statement: “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling preserves the rights of Pennsylvania girls and LGBTQ youth when they face sex-based harassment and bullying in schools.  Now, even if these students don’t have parents or guardians who are willing to help them seek legal remedies, these students can rest assured that they will still have the option later to seek justice.”

The Public Interest Law Center issued this statement: “We are very pleased with the Court’s decision. Of note, the trial court [in 2017] asserted that Pennsylvania has not recognized discrimination claims under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act [PHRA] against a school based on student-on-student harassment. But in reaching its decision on the [deadline] question, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court never questioned that a student subjected to discrimination based on student-on-student harassment is protected by the law. That recognition is reassuring. The PHRA must protect children from discriminatory harassment by their classmates by holding schools liable for failing to address discriminatory school environments.”

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Inc. issued this statement: “In urging the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to reverse the Commonwealth Court’s decision, [friends of the court] described the abundant empirical evidence which has established that bias-based bullying is a pervasive problem with severe consequences for its victims emotionally, behaviorally, and academically —  including but not limited to lower academic performance and higher dropout rates — all of which can have a profoundly negative impact on the lives of children, particularly those with disabilities. Unfortunately, as [friends of the court] explained, children with disabilities often do not receive adequate responses from teachers and school officials when they report incidents of bullying and harassment — which further prolongs the mistreatment and excludes them from receiving the benefits of their education. This result is disheartening — as educators are the ones in the unique position to identify students who are chronically victimized by bullying and harassment to address their needs and stop the illegal behavior, so as not to deprive students of their right to access their public education. COPAA is pleased that the Court recognized the impact on children with disabilities as well as other vulnerable populations who may be subject to discrimination —  and reversed the lower court decision.”

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape issued this statement: “Our position is that sexual assault of a minor is clearly an extraordinary, immobilizing circumstance that justifies [the deadline extension]. Delayed reporting is extremely common in sexual abuse cases involving minors. The Court’s decision in this case provides a pathway to justice for survivors. We applaud this positive outcome. Sexual assault is preventable and we all have a role to play in creating safe and healthy communities and holding violators accountable.”

The Education Law Center issued this statement: “We know from our work that many schoolchildren like N.B. are subject to pervasive discriminatory harassment based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. Unfortunately the harassment of students of color and [LGBT] students and kids who don’t conform to sex stereotypes has increased. And it’s too often treated less seriously by school officials than the bullying of their white, straight, gender-conforming peers. By [extending the PHRC deadline], the court has affirmed the right of students and former students to challenge wrongful racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and other discriminatory conduct in schools. Students who are harassed are at an increased risk of absenteeism and poor academic performance, as well as long-lasting negative mental and physical health outcomes. All schools need to do better and provide a safe, affirming learning environment for our students of color and LGBTQ students. And children who experience discrimination and harassment while in school are entitled to access to a legal system wherein they can hold their schools accountable. This decision ensures children will have that chance.”