Vandergrift filed suit against the Pennsauken School District and various officials last December, and the case is winding its way through the adjudication process.
In the suit, Vandergrift contends that district officials violated state and federal laws by engaging in antigay discrimination, antigay retaliation and exhibiting “deliberate indifference” to antigay bullying.
Vandergrift’s nephew, a 12-year-old identified in court papers as D.V., suffers from autism, generalized anxiety disorder and a learning disability in math.
Between 2010-12, D.V. was enrolled in public-educational programs at the Pennsauken School District, but he wasn’t receiving a proper education, according to the suit. District officials allegedly failed to accept the child’s autism, despite a diagnosis by three physicians.
In August 2011, Vandergrift and his parents requested specialized autistic programming for the child.
Instead of cooperating, district employees allegedly retaliated by accusing Vandergrift of inappropriately touching the child when trying to teach him how to shower.
Similar accusations weren’t made against Vandergrift’s parents, even though they also told the employees they helped teach D.V. how to shower, according to the suit.
In October 2011, the state Department of Children and Families determined that the accusations were unsubstantiated.
But Vandergrift, a 36-year-old public-school teacher, contends the accusations could be detrimental to his career.
After the molestation accusations were made, the family had D.V. privately counseled, rather than receiving counseling services through the district.
In January 2012, D.V. began reporting antigay bullying by other students. In May of that year, the student’s family met with district employees to discuss their concerns and said the employees displayed a dismissive attitude, according to the lawsuit.
One employee allegedly indicated it was “commonplace for students to call each other ‘gay’ in D.V.’s class and that D.V. should not get upset about it because this was not a ‘big deal,’” the suit alleges.
The employees’ statements prompted family members to seek an emergency petition to have D.V. instructed at his home, at the district’s expense.
District officials subsequently took the position that the child should be instructed at a local library, according to court papers.
“Only after the tutor came to D.V.’s home anyway, explaining that she had never been requested to home tutor a student at a library, did the district allow the instruction to take place there,” the lawsuit states.
In September 2012, after a separate lawsuit was filed, district officials agreed to pay for D.V.’s education at a private school, where he’s currently enrolled.
District officials also agreed to reimburse D.V.’s grandmother, identified as B.V., $25,000 in legal fees and expenses.
Vandergrift told PGN that D.V. is doing much better at the private school, where he’s a seventh-grader. Vandergrift visits D.V. often, since the child’s birth parents aren’t involved in his upbringing.
“He needs stability, and a constant role model,” Vandergrift said.
He expressed particular concern about his nephw’s alleged antigay bullying.
“The family feels the school district turned a blind eye to the bullying because we were advocating adamantly for a proper education for [D.V.],” he said.
School district attorney Brett E.J. Gorman had no comment for this story.
The case has been referred to U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider.
The family is seeking an unspecified amount in punitive and compensatory damages. A jury trial has been requested, but a trial date hasn’t yet been set.