A South Philadelphia gay man’s anti-bias lawsuit against the Pennsauken School District is moving forward, after being held in abeyance for more than a year.
Thomas Vandergrift, 39, alleges that district officials violated his civil rights when they wrongfully accused him of child molestation. He claims the false accusations occurred because he’s gay and advocated for a proper education for his autistic nephew.
Vandergrift also claims his nephew experienced pervasive anti-LGBT bullying while he was a student at the Pennsauken School District.
Vandergrift, his mother and his nephew filed suit against the district in 2012. But Vandergrift’s case was held in abeyance, while the case of his mother and nephew was adjudicated.
Recently, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider dismissed the case of Vandergrift’s mother and nephew.
On April 17, Vandergrift met with Schneider in Camden to discuss details of his case. Vandergrift wants a jury trial, and told the judge he’s hoping to find an attorney to assist him.
He said if he cannot obtain an attorney within the next few weeks, he’ll represent himself.
“I’m hoping to get an attorney to help with my case,” Vandergrift said. “But I’m also prepared and willing to go pro se, if need be.”
Vandergrift said the false accusations had a “devastating” effect on him.
“It destroyed my life,” he said. “I haven’t worked since 2012. I’ve been in post-traumatic stress disorder counseling for several years now. I have nightmares every night. I have rage and despair as well.”
He added: “The allegations had a devastating effect on my ability to enjoy life and pursue the activities I was passionate about.”
His nephew is now enrolled in a private school.
“If any good has come from all of this, it’s that my nephew has been placed in a safe and supportive educational environment until he’s 21. That was allocated by law, and we’re grateful for that.”
Vandergrift said he’s still fearful of being alone with his nephew, who is 15.
“I see him occasionally but I’m never alone with him. And I still don’t hug him. My fears haven’t gone away since August 2011, when the allegations happened.”
He expressed hope that his lawsuit will prevent other LGBT people from experiencing similar alleged abuse.