January 2, 2019
A Philadelphia judge recently awarded a student $500,000 in damages for bullying she suffered in schools in the Philadelphia School District. The claim was brought under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and claimed that the severe bullying the student faced essentially denied her the “accommodations or privileges” of the school based on her sex. The bullying was so bad that the student had to withdraw from the school district. In his opinion, the trial judge stated that because the student had to withdraw, she “was literally denied the use of a public accommodation on the basis of her sex. The [Pennsylvania Human Relations Act] forbids this.”
Specifically, students bullied the student because the way she dressed did not conform to the “societal expectations for girls in terms of appearance and dress.” She was physically attacked on numerous occasions, and all of the bullying was reported to the schools in which it occurred. Because the schools failed to take the appropriate measures to prevent the bullying, the school was held liable under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
As the trial judge stated in his opinion, whether a school district can be liable for this type of conduct under the Human Relations Act is a matter of first impression. The case is already on appeal to the Superior Court, which will most likely provide a binding decision on this issue. It is an important case to watch, and could potentially provide a route to compensate students who suffer severe bullying at school.