Civil rights and advocacy groups filed a federal civil rights complaint on Wednesday on behalf of four students, one teacher, and families within the Pennridge School District. The complaint aims to challenge discriminatory policies, practices, and an environment perceived as hostile due to ongoing race- and sex-based harassment.
“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.”
Filed with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice Civil Right Division, the complaint asserts an array of allegations including policies and practices in Pennridge that are anti-LGBTQ+ and racially discriminatory, a failure to address the bullying of students of color and LGBTQ+ students, intentional curriculum revisions that deliberately remove dialogs surrounding racism and oppression from the classroom, the removal of literature – or book banning – that explores diverse life experiences, and discriminatory bathroom and sports policies.
The Education Law Center-PA and the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School facilitated the filing on behalf of the Bucks County NAACP, the PairUP Society and families negatively impacted by the district’s dismantling of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiative and the failure to implement corrective actions to address multiple complaints about race- and sex-based incidents.
“All students deserve safety and dignity at school,” said Karen Downer, president of the Bucks County NAACP, an organization represented in the complaint. “Unfortunately, Pennridge has created an environment that is hostile for some students because of their race, sex, or gender identity.”
Title VI and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination based on these characteristics, and schools are legally required to take action when they are notified of a hostile environment that prevents some groups of students from fully participating in educational opportunities.
The filing of the complaint was predicated on the personal experiences of students and a teacher who say they experienced multiple incidents of harassment.
“No child should have to choose between their safety and their education,” said Adrienne King, who founded PairUP Society, a nonprofit providing support to marginalized students who have encountered bullying in Pennridge schools. “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.”
Policy changes made over the last two years have exacerbated issues for LGBTQ+ students and students of color.
“Our thanks to the brave students and advocates who have faced callous, hostile, and harmful school environments for years but did not give up in 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.”
“The District has an obligation to comply with the Civil Rights Act and to ensure an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all,” said Keith Matier, a law student in the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic who worked on the complaint.
Addressing the complaint and ensuring compliance with the Civil Rights Act will become the responsibility of the Pennridge School Board, which now includes five new Democratic school board directors who were elected in November’s Municipal Election.
“We hope that this lawsuit will be a step towards ensuring future students of all identities can learn and thrive at Pennridge schools,” said Annamarie Hufford-Bucklin, a Penn Carey Law student in the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic who worked on the complaint.