Pennridge School District still facing lawsuit over alleged sexual assault

By Charmaine Little | Jun 18, 2018

PHILADELPHIA - Pennridge School District was unsuccessful in asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit after one of its student suffered harassment on and off school grounds, according to court documents filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently.

Pennridge School District and its affiliates requested the district course dismiss plaintiff Darbianne Goodwin’s claims that the school system violated several of her rights. Defendants are the school district, its Superintendent Jacqueline Rattigan and Principal Gina DeBona. 

Goodwin claimed the defendants violated the 1983 Equal Protection Clause when it allegedly permitted a hostile environment, claiming supervisor liability (against Rattigan and DeBona), performed intentional infliction of emotional distress (against PSD, Rattigan, and DeBona), and failure to properly train its employees (against PSD, Rattigan, and DeBona).

The lawsuit comes amid Goodwin’s statement that a Pennridge High School (PHS) student sexually assaulted her. The alleged incident did not occur during school hours or on school property. Goodwin and her mother were told because of the time and place of the alleged occurrence, the offender wouldn’t suffer any consequences, and the school would not “offer any accommodations to Goodwin,” according to the March opinion.

The perpetrator and his friends allegedly continued to verbally and physically harass her.

When it comes to the Title IX claim, the court determined Goodwin had to prove “PSD received federal funds, she was sexually harassed, PSD had ‘substantial control’ over both the harasser(s) and the context of harassment, PSD had ‘actual knowledge of the harassment, PSD was ‘deliberately indifferent’ to the harassment, and the harassment was ‘so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive,’ that it deprived Goodwin of access to educational opportunities or benefits,” according to the document.

The defendants only challenged the last two aspects. While they argued the plaintiff only had four complaints over two years and that the complaints regarding Goodwin’s proximity to her harassers are inadequate, the district court pointed out Goodwin claimed she suffered verbal and physical harassment almost daily. It added the defendants permitted the hostile environment when they did not guarantee Goodwin’s harassers wouldn’t get within a certain distance of her.

The defendants also stated they were not deliberately indifferent as they took multiple steps such as meeting with Goodwin, speaking to Goodwin’s mother about Title IX, and telling the initial harasser’s family about the incidents that they said were not “clearly unreasonable.” Still, the district court added the many steps they took didn’t prevent Goodwin from being harassed, and their failure to develop new initiatives to guarantee her protection can show deliberate indifference.

The district court also determined Goodwin’s claim of Title IX satisfied the final requirement regarding the notion that the incidents impacting her educational experience.

When it comes to the 1983 Equal Protection claims, the defendants stated Goodwin’s Title IX complaint includes those related to the 1983 Equal Protection complaint. The court disagreed and permitted Goodwin to continue with the claims.

They went on to state Goodwin could not argue this claim because she didn’t “cite” a “similarly situated male,” according to the opinion, and because she didn’t raise any complaints of intentional discrimination.

The court decided Goodwin didn’t have to fulfill the similarly situated male requirement as her claims revolved around sexual harassment. It also determined her claim was viable as the defendants failed to confront the harassment.

As for the failure to properly train claim, Goodwin said PSD had a legal obligation and formal policy to look into the harassment claims, even though it didn’t happen on school grounds. She added that claims the defendants didn’t know about the policy proves they were not trained on how to handle off-campus incidents.

When it comes to the supervisor liability claims, Goodwin used the notion that Rattigan and DeBona knew about the incident and failed to investigate as well as proof the harasser had plans to physically attack her as her argument. The court found this was enough for Goodwin’s claim.

Still, the court disagreed with Goodwin’s argument of intentional infliction of emotional distress as she raised those claims against the defendants instead of her actual harassers.  

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