Judge Orders Philadelphia School District to Pay $500,000 in Bullying Case

The ruling marks the first time Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination statue has been used to hold a school district accountable for student-on-student bullying, says the plaintiff’s attorney.

A judge has ordered the School District of Philadelphia to pay $500,000 to the family of a former student who says the school district failed to prevent severe bullying over her gender presentation at four city schools.

Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gene Cohen awarded the money to the family of 19-year-old Amanda Wible, the plaintiff, in a verdict issued on May 30th. Cohen ruled that the School District of Philadelphia’s conduct violated the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which prohibits sex discrimination.

Wible is represented by David BerneyJennifer Y. Sang and Kevin Golembiewski of Center City-based law firm Berney and Sang. Berney said the ruling is notable because it represents the first time the PHRA — the state’s flagship anti-discrimination statue, which is typically invoked in cases involving employment issues — has been used to hold a school district accountable for student-on-student bullying. (The ruling comes after Philadelphia judge dismissed a separate case in which Berney raised a similar claim under the PHRA earlier this year. Berney and several prominent civil rights organizations appealed that ruling.)

Cohen’s ruling laid out the following account of Wible’s experiences at four schools in Philadelphia: Pollock Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia, Alternative Middle Years at James Martin School in Port Richmond, C.C.A. Baldi Middle School in Bustleton, and George Washington High School in Bustleton.

Wible was first subjected to bullying while attending Pollock Elementary School in the fall of 2003. There, Wible experienced “severe and persistent taunting, teasing, bullying and harassment,” as well as “sexualized name calling” that was “indicative of contempt for her gender presentation” and her “failure to conform to societal expectations for girls in terms of appearance and dress.”

After Wible was physically assaulted by a larger male student who “teased her with sexualized taunts,” the school district suspended the student but did not take further action when the taunting continued. Cohen wrote that the “School District had no procedure to remedy the discrimination and bullying suffered by Amanda at Pollock.”

After Wible’s mother transferred her to a new school for sixth grade — Alternative Middle Years at James Martin School — the bullying, name-calling and physical assaults by students continued, according to the ruling. Again “efforts to remedy the situation were nonexistent,” Cohen wrote. Eventually, in December 2007, while Wible was in seventh grade, she was “ganged up on” and physically attacked by more than 10 students in an experience that caused her to suffer her first panic attack.

Cohen wrote that administrators at AMY “blamed” Wible for the assault and suspended her, and that “as a result of this attack and the unwillingness of AMY to take adequate steps to protect Amanda,” her mother had her transferred mid-year to C.C.A. Baldi Middle School.

At Baldi, Wible’s mother warned the principal and Wible’s teachers of prior bullying through a letter — but the harassment continued. Cohen found that the School District acted “with deliberate indifference to the discrimination and bullying suffered by Amanda at Baldi.”

Eventually, Wible graduated from Baldi and enrolled at George Washington High School, where she was again bullied and where efforts by school staff to remedy the situation were again “nonexistent.” Her mother placed her in a cyber charter school in tenth grade.

As a result of the sexual harassment Wible experienced, Wible said she suffered “physical and psychological harm,” depression and anxiety. “She also engaged in self-harm, had suicidal ideation” and has since developed “‘Complex Type’ post-traumatic stress disorder,” which occurs after prolonged, repeated trauma, according to the ruling.

In a statement, Megan Lello, a spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia, said the district takes “any report of bullying very seriously.”

“We continuously emphasize to staff and students that bullying and harassment are unacceptable, and we encourage students and families to contact us when they have concerns,” Lello said. “We have a strict policy that prohibits bullying, we regularly publicize our bullying and harassment hotline (215-400-SAFE), and we have a form on our website where people can report cases of bullying.

“Our staff has also been trained about how to both recognize and report cases of bullying, and we have more climate staff in our schools ready to handle related incidents,” she added. “We will continue these efforts.”

Neither Wible nor her family were immediately available for comment. Cohen has ordered the School District of Philadelphia to pay the family damages of $500,000, plus attorneys fees and costs.

Berney said Cohen’s decision will “provide a support for being able to use the [PHRA) in the future to support children who are claiming they have been bullied by other children based on [sex, race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age or national origin].”

“We can use this, other families can use this, as a way of holding school districts accountable and to get the Pennsylvania Relations Commission to step in and … make sure that this bullying doesn’t keep persisting,” Berney said. “Once school districts understand that they can be held financially accountable for this type of behavior, they’re more likely to take the bullying seriously.”