The National Women's Law Center has joined a lawsuit by a former Pennridge High School student alleging that the Bucks County district discriminated against her by not coming to her aid when classmates called her racist and insulting names, harassed her, and sexually propositioned her. She was 14 at the time, and the only African American student in ninth grade.
The original lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court was dismissed in October by Judge Mitchell Goldberg. However, he allowed the student, Modupe Williams, now 19, to file an amended complaint, which Pennridge is also seeking to dismiss. On Jan. 19, the Women's Law Center and Williams' lawyer filed an opposition to the district's motion.
Williams' suit alleges that she was called "bitch" and the N-word and other vulgarities on many occasions, received harassing phone calls, and was tormented in and out of school, all of which she and her mother, Deborah, reported to school authorities. The suit contends that administrators did nothing to stop the behavior, and told Modupe Williams to go to another school if she did not like Pennridge.
"The harassment and bullying that I faced made me dread going to school," the younger Williams said in a statement from the Women's Law Center in Washington. "I know I'm not alone. I hope by going to court and telling my story that schools will actually create safe and comfortable learning environments, instead of failing to protect their students."
Calls and emails to Pennridge Superintendent Jacqueline A. Rattigan and solicitor Robert Cox were not returned.
District officials have not disputed the allegations, but say they did not violate Title IX and Title VI, federal laws that prohibit sex and race discrimination in education.
According to the suit, the problems started in January 2012. When Williams left class to use a restroom, a white male student threw her backpack from her desk to the floor and took her seat. When she returned, the teacher told her to go study in the library because there were no more chairs. Both Williams and her mother complained to the school, but nothing was done, they said.
Then, during spring break in April 2012, Williams received numerous calls from a group of boys calling her names and making explicit sexual comments, the suit alleges. If she ignored the calls, they left messages. After getting 19 calls in three days, her mother took one of the calls on Easter, pretending to be the daughter, and was "shocked" by the graphic remarks. She contacted the Perkasie Police Department, which arrested three boys from Pennridge High School. Deborah Williams said they received probation and community service and were required to write a letter of apology to her daughter.
On April 10 of that year, Deborah Williams told Pennridge's ninth-grade principal, Nicholas Schoonover, about the calls and played some of the messages for him. Schoonover assured her, she said, that the district would also discipline the boys, but nothing was done because "they said it happened outside of school."
The harassment continued at school, according to the suit. In class, the callers bragged about their calls, repeating what they said. Others joined in. When Modupe Williams confronted a boy about copying her exam answers, he threateningly asked, "Are you going to call the cops on me, too?"
Another white student shouted at her, "How ... drunk were your parents when they named you 'Modupe?'" - a Nigerian name.
Deborah Williams said that after spring break, she spoke to school authorities, including Schoonover, Pennridge High School principal Tom Creeden, and a guidance counselor, several times a week. During a May 25 meeting, she said Schoonover proposed a plan: Her daughter would be hospitalized over the summer and return to an alternative school until she could cope with attending Pennridge again.
Deborah Williams said she felt they were blaming her daughter and not the perpetrators.
"She didn't miss a day of school, she had zero tardies and a 4.3 GPA," she said.
At the end of the school year, Williams transferred to a district in New Jersey, which she had attended before enrolling in Pennridge in seventh grade. But Pennridge did not send her transcripts to her new school, said her mother. Without the transcripts, the teenager had to change classes a number of times, interrupting her sophomore year, as well, Deborah Williams said.
Modupe Williams is now a dean's list student at the University of New Haven, where she is studying marine biology, and is president of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions). Her mother says, however, that her experience at Pennridge changed her emotionally: "I don't feel she is quite as confident as she could be."