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Judge Partially Denies Motion to Dismiss Racial Bullying Lawsuit

Friday, December 13, 2019 @ 12:12 AM

Posted by Chris Rossetti

us-district-courtOIL CITY, Pa. (EYT) – A federal judge this week partially denied a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit brought against the Oil City School District, one of its principals, and two of its teachers.

(PHOTO: Joseph F. Weis Jr. Federal Courthouse where a federal lawsuit was filed against the Oil City School District and two of its teachers. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

“On behalf of my clients, a lawsuit was filed claiming that a student of Hispanic origin who attended elementary school in the Oil City School District during the 2017-18 school was the victim of racial bullying by some students, and the principal was aware of the bullying but didn’t do anything about and created an environment that allowed it to continue and fester,” Jennifer Price, the lawyer for the plaintiff told exploreClarion.com on Wednesday.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a student who attended Smedley Street Elementary School at the time of the alleged incidents and was filed in early October of 2018 against the Oil City School District, Elementary School Principal Tammy Newman, and teachers Jessica Rodriguez and Kelly Zerbe.

On Monday, December 9, Judge Susan Paradise Baxter said the suit against Newman, Rodriguez, and Zerbe could proceed, but that the suit against the school district would have to be amended by December 30, 2019, or it would be dismissed, according to Price.

“I will talk to my client about amending the complaint,” Price said. “But, I believe that is still of interest.”

Price said the lawsuit alleges that the student, who was nine years old at the time of the alleged incident and has a disability (Autism Spectrum Disorder) according to the lawsuit, was called “brownie” and was told he “stinks because of the color of his skin.”

“In addition, one of the kids who was harassing him pushed him down the stairs and another hit him in the head with a ball,” Price said.

In the lawsuit, it alleges that the student was called “a stinky African” by eight “white” students and that another “white” student was the one who said the student “stunk because of the color of his skin.”

The lawsuit alleges that Zerbe knew of the incident where the student was pushed down the stairs and where the student was hit in the head but that Zerbe took no action.

The lawsuit also alleges that Zerbe “on occasion, segregated the student from other students within the classroom and made the student face his desk towards the wall. This segregation lasted for approximately one month.”

According to the lawsuit, the parents were never given a reason as to why the segregation occurred and that once the parents complained to the principal about the segregation, the student was allowed to be integrated with the other students.

The lawsuit also states that when a complaint was made to Newsman, she responded that children were too young to understand the difference in race and color and also “made excuses for the children’s actions by stating, ‘maybe it was a mistake’ or ‘maybe the child had bad aim’ or ‘maybe the child was initiating a game of dodgeball.’”

The lawsuit also alleges that the student’s parents were also told by Newman that there was nothing that could be done about their bullying complaints if the incident did not occur on the day the parents informed the school.

According to the lawsuit, the parents also complained to the superintendent, Patrick Gavin at the time, about Newman and staff not being responsive to the bullying. The suit alleges that Gavin emailed he would speak to Newman and that, thereafter, Newman called the student who was alleged to have been harassed into her office and scolded him for having a bad attitude.

The suit continued that Gavin allowed the parents to select their own teacher for the student the following school year to mitigate future issues with students. And, the parents specifically instructed that their child not be placed in a certain classroom because that classroom had one of the students who had allegedly harassed their child, the student who instigated racial harassment but that Newsman placed the child in that classroom anyhow.

“(My client) requested a different teacher, but (Newman) still placed my client in the same classroom as the kids who were making these statements towards him,” Price said.

The lawsuit went on to say that the student was discouraged from reporting other students harassing him by Rodriguez who told him he was “tattling.”

At some point, the student stopped reporting instances of assaults to any teachers or administrators, the lawsuit said.

Price said the lawsuit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants, although no dollar amount has been set yet.

According to Price, no additional dates have been set for hearings.

After attempting to contact Oil City Superintendent Lynda Weller on Wednesday afternoon, exploreClarion.com received a call from Teresa Sirianni of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin of Pittsburgh, one of the lawyers representing the defendants. Sirianni, however, did not leave a message and then did not return a follow-up call either Wednesday or Thursday.

When reached Thursday, Weller said that she wasn’t permitted to discuss pending litigation.

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