Oral arguments scheduled in student sexual assault case

Oral arguments scheduled in student sexual assault case

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in March regarding the case of a student rape victim and his mother who seek reinstatement of their lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District.

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 nonconforming, according to court records.

Slurs hurled at N.B. included “fa---t,” “homo,” “d--k sucker,” “b---h,” “p---y” and “n---a.” N.B.’s bulliers also forced him to view a homoerotic video and to simulate a pole dance, according to court records.

N.B. is currently 17 years old and no longer attends a Philadelphia public school. He was eight years old when the rape occurred.

On Jan. 7, 2014, N.B.’s mother filed an administrative 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 six-month deadline for filing a PHRC complaint by two years, according to court records.

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 lawsuit, citing the missed PHRC deadline.

N.B.’s mother filed an appeal with Commonwealth Court, which ruled against her in December 2018.

In June 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The justices must decide how PHRC’s six-month deadline should be applied in N.B.’s case. The school district argues the deadline period started running in 2011, after the last act of discrimination alleged by N.B. If the court accepts that position, N.B.’s mother missed the deadline by two years.

But N.B. and his mother argue the deadline period won’t start running until N.B. turns 18 — when he’s old enough to file his own PHRC complaint, instead of having an adult file on his behalf. If the court accepts that position, the lawsuit of N.B.’s mother will be reinstated.

Eight advocacy groups have signed on to amicus briefs in the case — Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates; Disability Rights Pennsylvania; Education Law Center of Pennsylvania; Juvenile Law Center; Public Interest Law Center; Women’s Law Project; Community Legal Services of Philadelphia; and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

The amicus briefs emphasize the seriousness of rape and the need to hold school-district officials accountable for their alleged negligence in N.B.’s case.

The amicus brief of Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, Juvenile Law Center, Public Interest Law Center, Women’s Law Project and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia focuses on the vulnerability of LGBT students and students of color.

“Students of color and students who fail to conform to gender stereotypes, including those who are or are perceived to be LGBT are particularly likely to experience harassment in the school setting,” the brief states. “Unfortunately, although these students are particularly vulnerable to student-to-student harassment, their harassment in school is often taken less seriously than the bullying of their white, straight, gender-conforming counterparts — which can lead to tragic consequences, as in the case of N.B.”

The amicus brief of Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape blasts school-district officials. “N.B., [when] a fourth-grade student, was raped on the bathroom floor at his school, during the school day while under the supervision of adult school officials. And now, those school officials have the audacity to argue it is too late for N.B. to seek justice.”

A spokesperson for the school district declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.

In an email, David J. Berney, an attorney for N.B. and his mother, said he’s optimistic about the case for several reasons. Berney said there’s a state law that specifically permits the extension of filing deadlines for minors who wish to file a civil action. He also said the state Human Relations Act “is a broad remedial civil rights statute” that permits extending the six-month filing deadline in situations such as N.B.’s.

Oral arguments are scheduled for 9 a.m. March 10 in Courtroom 456 of City Hall in Center City Philadelphia. 

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