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Nicole B. v. School District of Philadelphia, et al. (PA Supreme Court 2019)

The Education Law Center (ELC) filed amicus briefing in Nicole B. v. School District of Philadelphia, et al., a case involving a Philadelphia student who was relentlessly bullied because of his race and nonconformance with gender stereotypes; the school failed to intervene and allowed the bullying to escalate from verbal harassment, to multiple physical assaults, and, ultimately, to rape.

In July 2018, ELC partnered with DLA Piper, the Public Interest Law Center, and Juvenile Law Center in arguing that this student, and others like him, should have protection under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), Pennsylvania’s antidiscrimination law, when their school fails to intervene to stop ongoing harassment.

“Unfortunately, the Education Law Center hears frequently from families about issues of bullying and harassment in schools,” said Lizzy Wingfield, ELC’s Stoneleigh Foundation Emerging Leader Fellow. “The issue of unaddressed bullying is pervasive and is particularly common when the bullied student is a child of color who does not conform to societal gender norms or is LGBTQ. Too many people who should intervene to stop bullying view the harassment of gender-nonconforming or LGBTQ students of color as if it is normal, so they don’t take it as seriously as the bullying of white, gender-conforming students. That’s why it is so critical that the PHRA is available as a tool to root out discriminatory pervasive bullying.”

The Commonwealth Court refused to consider the merits of the case because N.B., who was nine at the time he was raped, did not file his claim within 180 days of the incident. A legal doctrine known as minority tolling generally means that the time bar for bringing a child’s claim does not begin until the child turns 18, but the court ruled that minority tolling does not apply to PHRA claims. Minority tolling is a vital protection for Pennsylvania’s children, as it is fundamentally unfair to hold children like N.B. to the same statute of limitations as adults.

In addition to our brief filed in Commonwealth Court, ELC filed an amicus brief requesting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court review the Commonwealth Court’s ruling and ensure that children who experience discrimination in school can benefit from the protections of the PHRA. The PA Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and in August 2019, ELC submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court, joined by Juvenile Law Center, Public Interest Law Center, Women’s Law Project, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and Professor Emily Suski. WHYY covered this story.

In September 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled favorably in the case, holding that bullying victims have until six months after their 18th birthday to bring discrimination complaints under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. ELC staff attorney Kristina Moon commented, “By recognizing that minor children should not be subjected to a short, 180-day statute of limitations in filing claims with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the court has affirmed the right of students and former students to challenge wrongful racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and other discriminatory conduct in schools.” WHYY reported on the Supreme Court ruling in the case.