Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include additional information.
Four students and a teacher have filed a federal discrimination complaint against the Pennridge School District for what they say is a “chronic failure to take reasonable and necessary measures to address persistent and severe harassment of LGBTQ+ students of color.”
The complaint, filed by the Advocacy for Racial and Civil (ARC) Justice Clinic in Philadelphia on behalf of the students and teacher, whose names were redacted, also lists the NAACP of Bucks County and the PairUP Society, a local advocacy group, as plaintiffs.
The complaint asks the Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights to investigate the “hostile environment, assert jurisdiction,” and order the district to take measures to remedy the situation. They include:
The complaint lists several allegedly racially discriminatory and anti-LGBTQ+ policies and practices in Pennridge schools, including a failure to address bullying of students of color and LGBTQ+ students, curriculum changes designed to eliminate discussion of racism and oppression from classrooms, removal of books that represent diverse experiences, and a discriminatory bathroom policy. The complaint asks for the district to directly address race- and sex-based harassment “to ensure that it does not recur” and to adopt policies that “affirmatively foster inclusion of marginalized students.”
“For years, teachers, students of color, and LGBTQ+ students have reported race- and sex-based harassment, including students routinely using the N-word toward Black students and students threatening violence against LGBTQ+ students,” the complaint states. “But District officials have refused to remedy the systemic and pervasive forms of race- and sex-based harassment.”
Karen Downer, president of the Bucks County NAACP, said the district has “created an environment that is hostile for some students because of their race, sex, or gender identity. All students deserve safety and dignity at school.”
The complaint includes stories from students of color and LGBTQ+ students who told investigators persistent bullying, slurs, harassment, and threats of violence went unaddressed by administrators, in some cases pushing them to switch to online learning or leave the district entirely.
In response to her child’s experience hearing racial slurs and threats at school, Pennridge parent Adrienne King founded the PairUP Society, a nonprofit that supports underrepresented students facing bullying in schools.
“No child should have to choose between their safety and their education,” she said. “Pennridge School District has a duty to protect students of all identities so that they are not prevented from learning simply because of who they are.”
Among the complainants is a transgender teacher who resigned this fall after having a panic attack during a parent-teacher conference because of “severe physical impacts caused by irregular access to the bathroom.” Earlier this year, the board approved a policy requiring students and staff to use bathrooms designated for their sex assigned at birth or use single-user restrooms. The teacher, the complaint says, was forced to choose between “outing himself to students and co-workers by using the women’s room or walking far across the school to access a single-user non-gendered bathroom.”
The complaint says that while Pennridge has failed to address race and sex harassment, it made the hostile environment worse by disbanding diversity-equity-inclusion initiatives, prohibiting teachers from displaying pride flags, limiting discussion of racism in the social studies curriculum, and removing diverse reading materials from the library.
“Our thanks to the brave students and advocates who have faced callous, hostile, and harmful school environments for years but did not give up the fight to make their school communities better,” said attorney Ashli Giles-Perkins of the Education Law Center. “Pennridge School District has to address the racial and LGBTQ+ discrimination that continues to plague its school community. The situation calls for strong interventions from the federal government.”