Philadelphia school-district officials are appealing a $500,000 award to Amanda Wible, a former public-school student who maintains she suffered severe bullying because she’s gender-nonconforming.
Wible attended Philadelphia’s public schools between September 2003-13 and said she suffered unlawful bullying beginning in 2008.
In April 2015, Wible filed suit against the district, citing numerous slurs and acts of violence directed at her by other classmates due to her gender-nonconformity. Those slurs included “lesbo,” faggot,” “it,” “bitch,” “dyke,” “loser,” “freak,” “nigger” and “trash can.”
Wible’s suit also alleges that bullies punched her, pulled her hair, broke her glasses, spit on her, threw food at her, placed a trash can on her head, pushed her into a locker and ripped off some of her clothing.
Wible and her mother repeatedly complained about the abuse, but school authorities failed to implement corrective measures, according to Wible’s lawsuit. In 10th grade, Wible transferred out of the district to a cyber-charter school. Wible, now 20, attends college in Wales, Great Britain.
In court papers, defense attorneys denied that school officials were aware of Wible being subjected to systemic harassment and bullying. They also argued that a school district can’t be held liable for student-on-student bullying under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
But in May, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Gene D. Cohen ruled that Wible was subjected to unlawful harassment and bullying. He wrote that the district was responsible for sex discrimination in a public accommodation, which is prohibited by the PHRA. It’s believed to be the first time a court held a school district liable for student-on-student bullying under the act.
In his 11-page ruling, Cohen wrote: “The school district acted with deliberate indifference to the discrimination and bullying suffered by [Wible].” The judge added that Wible suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, for which she receives psychiatric care.
Cohen awarded Wible $500,000 in damages and $578,000 to her attorneys for their legal fees and costs, to be paid by the school district. The district is appealing in Commonwealth Court, claiming the district is immune from lawsuits such as Wible’s.
“Amanda and her mother are really hoping to make a difference across the commonwealth with this lawsuit,” David J. Berney, an attorney for Wible, told PGN. “It’s not all about being compensated for pain and suffering and her medical expenses. It’s about making a difference. Victims can now leverage the resources of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the Pennsylvania courts to redress claims of student-on-student unlawful harassment and bullying. That’s an achievement we’re optimistic will be affirmed on appeal.”
A spokesperson for the school district had no comment for this story by presstime.
Justin F. Robinette, a local civil-rights attorney, said the $500,000 award sets an important precedent because it falls under the PHRA.
“That in itself should send a message to school districts across the commonwealth that discrimination against LGBT and gender-nonconforming students is absolutely unacceptable. If you don’t take immediate and effective measures to stop it, you’ll be on the hook for hefty financial penalties.”
Berney also filed suit on behalf of another school-district student for bullying and rape.
The plaintiff, identified as “B,” claims he was repeatedly bullied and ultimately raped by three classmates in a bathroom when he was a fourth-grade student at William C. Bryant School in West Philadelphia. The suit was dismissed by a Common Pleas Court judge in August 2017, but Berney is appealing in Commonwealth Court.
On Oct. 29, PGN filed a Right-to-Know Law request for the total amount of funds the school district has paid to outside law firms to defend against the two cases. As of presstime, the request remained pending.