Colin Flaherty: School Violence Bullying and Court Ruling That Could Have Ripple Affect.
Author Colin Flaherty Commentary Video "Bullied in school, a Northeast Philly woman won a $500,000 judgment. Her case could ripple." black school violence fights attacks beatings. assaults on playground, schoolyard and bathroom
by Kristen A. Graham, Posted: October 27, 2018
The harassment began when Amanda Wible was in elementary school in Northeast Philadelphia: Classmates called her names and ostracized her for being different, the kind of kid who dressed in loose clothes and didn't conform to society's idea of what a little girl should look or act like.
It started with name-calling — "A-man-duh" — and escalated to physical attacks over nearly a decade at four different Philadelphia public schools. Wible was punched, shoved, spit on, even beaten by as many as 10 students at once, according to court records.
Wible eventually fled the district, enrolling in cyber school to escape the bullies who tormented her and the adults who let it happen. In May, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge ordered the Philadelphia School District to pay Wible $500,000 in damages.
It was the first time a court has held a Pennsylvania school district liable for student-on-student harassment under the state's Human Relations Act, in what experts call a "landmark" decision that could have broad implications for other bullied children and the systems that educate them.
The district has challenged the ruling, arguing that Amanda was not the victim of systemic bullying, that what she experienced wasn't discriminatory or gender-based, and that it shouldn't be held liable under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Most states have bullying laws on the books, but their content and enforcement varies. And the legal ground is still uneven. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools could be held liable for failing to stop peer-to-peer sexual harassment. In 2007, New Jersey's Supreme Court held the Toms River School District responsible in the case of a student who was bullied because he was gay. Five years later, a Missouri appellate court made a similar ruling in the case of a Kansas City student who was sexually harassed at school.
But before Wible's case, there were no such protections in Pennsylvania. In the past, school districts have successfully argued that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, typically invoked in employment situations, does not protect children from student-on-student bullying based on race, gender, or any other "protected class" status. In fact, before Wible's case was decided, a trial court said the law did not protect a gender-nonconforming boy who was bullied and eventually sexually assaulted at Bryant Elementary in West Philadelphia. (That decision is being appealed.)
At Pollock Elementary, where Wible enrolled in 2003, the problems began with schoolyard taunts. She could shake them off at first — she was smart, a gifted writer who loved to learn and devoured books.
"It was mostly name-calling; kids would talk about how I looked, and the fact that I dressed like a boy," said Wible. "But it got worse. School got horrible; I never wanted to go. The classroom situation was too stressful to be in."
By the time Wible was in fifth grade, the harassment turned physical, she said. Both Wible and her mother, Juanita Jones-Wible, alerted school officials, who once suspended an older male student who terrorized Amanda. But his behavior persisted, according to court records, and the authorities failed to act beyond the single suspension.
"It started almost right away — name-calling, pushing, shoving. I'd be hit; I'd have things stolen from me," Wible said. "I'd report things all the time, and they'd tell me: 'Ignore them. It will stop. We'll talk to them.' "
Once, a large group of students physically attacked Wible, according to court records; administrators blamed the attack on Wible and suspended her. She began having panic attacks.
"If those things had happened in an office, the people who harassed my daughter would be arrested," said Jones-Wible. "The school district should not be exempt from following the laws that govern our society. Nobody should have to send their kids into that situation."
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