SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) – A girl who says she became suicidal as bullies ridiculed her yeast infection with scratching sounds can sue the Scranton School District, a federal judge ruled.
O.P. was a South Scranton seventh grader “in her 5th period reading class on an October morning in 2009 when she heard the sound that would change her life forever,” according to a suit she and her parents filed this time last year.
Nine of O.P.’s female classmates allegedly plagued O.P. in and out of the classroom by making a noise that “sounded like ‘ch-ch.'”
“The once popular ‘A’ student, basketball player, yearbook editor and cheerleader” fell into a deep depression after “her former friends became her tormentors” and used her “private female medical condition” as a “weapon” to harass her, according to the suit.
O.P. says her tormentors had picked up on the fact that she had developed an uncomfortable yeast infection that caused her to “discreetly scratch her genital area.”
“Despite her remarkable restraint and despite her ability to appear stoic to the outside world, O.P. is a 13-year-old girl who has, like many young victims, contemplated suicide to stop her suffering,” the suit states.
O.P.’s parents say, “The sexual harassment and bullying were so severe, pervasive and persistent that O.P. complained of a stiff neck because she was afraid to turn her head to the left or right during school for fear of making eye contact” with the bullies.
As if the scratching sounds weren’t enough, “the student[s] …, on at least 50 occasions, called O.P. a ‘bitch,’ a ‘skank,’ a ‘slut,’ a ‘tramp’ or a ‘whore,'” according to the suit.
O.P.’s parents say their daughter “suffered in silence” for about seven months.
In addition to suing the alleged student-bullies, O.P. sued their parents, claiming they were aware of their children’s unrelenting harassment, but failed to stop it.
Other defendants include the district and several school administrators, including Superintendent William King and Barbara Dixon, the then-principal at the South Scranton Intermediate School.
The plaintiffs say Dixon failed to meaningfully address the harassment, partly because the bullies’ ringleader, T.M., was allegedly well-connected. The complaint says T.M.’s mother taught at the school, her father coached high school basketball in the district, and her grandfather was a recently retired teacher and athletic director in the district.
“O.P. comes before this court to plead for help, to stop her tormentors and to demonstrate to other victims that our legal system will protect them by punishing bullies before tragedy strikes,” the suit states.
Last week, however, U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky dismissed each of O.P.’s claims, except for violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs.
To bring a Title IX harassment claim in a school setting, plaintiffs must sufficiently allege that school administrators responded with “deliberate indifference,” despite notice of “a sexually hostile educational environment,” thereby depriving a student of “equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
Slomsky said O.P. and her parents have met that standard.
“Plaintiffs’ allegations satisfy the standard” because their suit alleges that O.P. was devastated by “gender-based taunting, slurs, and ridicule to which O.P. was subjected for having a female medical condition, the yeast infection,” the ruling states. They also showed that the alleged “behavior of her classmates caused O.P. to leave class, suffer a drop in her grades, withdraw from her position on the school yearbook, and decide to leave the school district altogether.”
The claim meets the notice standard as well because O.P. has alleged that she informed Superintendent King, then-Principal Dixon and then-interim Vice Principal Kevin Rogan of the harassment.
With respect to “deliberate indifference,” the plaintiffs have alleged that Dixon waited to act on a complaint from O.P.’s mother. After six days, Dixon allegedly made the ineffectual decision to bar the ring of bullies from sitting together in the cafeteria.
“It took six days for the school to change the cafeteria seating, and even after the seating was changed, some student defendants continued to sit together, exposing O.P. to further bullying,” according to Slomsky’s summary of the allegations.
Superintendent King also allegedly downplayed the harassment after a meeting with O.P.’s parents, telling Dixon to handle the complaints “at the building level.”
“School District employee defendants attempted to minimize the behavior of the students and only attempted to discipline some of them on one occasion,” the summary continues.
If true, that alleged response constitutes “deliberate indifference” that “made O.P. more vulnerable to harassment from student defendants,” Slomsky found.
He ordered the district to respond to the plaintiffs’ title IX claim within 20 days.