Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Discriminatory Policies in Pennridge School District

NAACP, PairUP Society, and Bucks County Families File Federal Civil Rights Complaint Challenging Discriminatory School Policies

November 15, 2023 – Several Bucks County families have joined with civil rights and advocacy groups to file a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of parents and students in the Pennridge School District, challenging the District’s discriminatory policies and its “hostile environment rife with race- and sex-based harassment.”

The complaint, filed today to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, alleges racially discriminatory and anti-LGBTQ+ policies and practices in Pennridge schools, including a failure to address bullying of students of color and LGBTQ+ students, curriculum changes designed to remove discussion of racism and oppression from classrooms, banning of books that represent diverse experiences, and discriminatory bathroom and sports policies. The complaint asks the District to directly address race- and sex-based harassment to ensure that it does not recur and to adopt policies that affirmatively foster the inclusion of marginalized students.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the Bucks County NAACP, the PairUP Society, and affected families by the Education Law Center-PA and the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

“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.”

“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.

In an investigation that led to the filing of the complaint, advocates spoke to students who described persistent harassment that went unaddressed by administrators, in some cases pushing affected students to switch to online learning or to leave the District entirely. Because of privacy concerns, portions of the stories shared in the complaint are redacted, but they include students of color who faced racist comments at school, as well as LGBTQ+ students who experienced slurs, harassment, and threats of violence.

In response to her child’s experience hearing racial slurs and threats at school, Pennridge parent Adrienne King founded the PairUP Society, a nonprofit that supports underrepresented students facing bullying in schools. “No child should have to choose between their safety and their education,” she said. “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.”

Advocates say that Pennridge has failed to address race- and sex-based harassment, instead exacerbating the hostile environment by disbanding Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiatives, prohibiting teachers from displaying pride flags, limiting discussion of racism in the social studies curriculum, and removing diverse reading materials from the library.

“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.”

“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.

“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 also worked on the complaint.

Class Action Suit Against Glen Mills Schools and Pa. Officials Cites Abuse of Children, Deprivation of Education

Lawyers from the Education Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and Dechert LLP filed a class action lawsuit April 11 in Philadelphia on behalf of hundreds of youth who were held at Glen Mills Schools, a residential facility located in Delaware County. This site, the oldest reform school in the country, housed as many as 1,000 boys from all over the country – and the world – at one time. After an emergency removal order of all remaining children at the facility as well as the revocation of its licenses by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, it is currently empty; these actions followed groundbreaking investigative reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Lisa Gartner.

The legal team from Education Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and Dechert LLP

The suit maintains that these youth housed at Glen Mills suffered at the hands of Glen Mills leadership and staff. Instead of receiving treatment and services, as required by the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, plaintiffs claim that they were subjected to extreme and sustained physical and psychological abuse and deprived of an education. The abuse had a particularly dire impact on youth of color – the vast majority of Glen Mills youth were African American – as well as students with special education needs and disabilities, whose educational and other rights were ignored.

The suit asserts that officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Chester County Intermediate Unit allowed Glen Mills’ education program to operate in the shadows without any oversight or monitoring to ensure the educational rights of students. The suit also maintains that the persistent and barbaric abuse went unchecked due to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services “callous disregard for the safety and well-being of the children in its care.” PA-DHS is the body responsible for the licensing, oversight and regulation of child residential facilities in the Commonwealth.

Plaintiffs seek damages as well as other equitable relief for violations of their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act,  and state common law claims.

Read our press release here.

Read our complaint here.

Read press coverage of the lawsuit here, here, and here.


Statement to the State Board of Education on the Model Memorandum of Understanding Between Schools and Police

The PA Safe Schools Act, amended in 2010, requires all Pennsylvania school districts to draw up a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with local law enforcement agencies to govern their working relationship. The state then created a model MOU addressing school-police cooperation, which must be reviewed every two years and guides the drafting of local MOUs.  In September 2018, ELC submitted comments on the model MOU to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education School and University Safety Committee, including recommended changes to avoid the overcriminalization of student behavior and the racial disproportionality in school discipline and police-involved incidents.

Education Law Center Submits Testimony on School Safety to PA House Education Committee

The Education Law Center submitted testimony to a March 15, 2018, Pennsylvania House Education Committee hearing on school safety. We urge officials to reject militarized responses to school violence and to focus instead on strategies to foster a school climate that is supportive of all students and attentive to students experiencing trouble or trauma. The hearing comes one day after thousands of students joined the National Student Walkout, calling for action against gun violence. Read our testimony here.





ELC Files Amicus Brief in PA Superior Court Bullying Case

The Education Law Center (ELC) has filed an amicus brief 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. ELC partnered with 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.”  Read the news release here and the brief here.






Education Law Center Challenges School District of Philadelphia’s Failure to Address Severe Bullying of Students with Disabilities

PHILADELPHIA, PA (July 27) Yesterday, the Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) filed a Complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) alleging a systemic failure by the School District of Philadelphia (“District”) to promptly and appropriately address pervasive and severe bullying of students with disabilities.
“Sadly, students with disabilities are far more likely to experience bullying in school than their non-disabled peers,” said Alex Dutton, Independence Fellow at the Education Law Center. “Under federal law, these students are entitled to an educational program that enables them to make meaningful progress in school. Bullying of a student with a disability on any basis may interfere with this critical right, and school districts must promptly and appropriately address it.”
“The District’s failure to address bullying denies students with disabilities access to equal educational opportunities and is therefore discriminatory,” said ELC Senior Attorney Maura McInerney.
The Complaint alleges that in some cases, the District failed to respond to parents’ complaints about bullying for months and even years.
In one case, a third-grade child with disabilities was kicked and punched by classmates, causing a concussion, and repeatedly called derogatory names like “retard” and “dumb.”
Another nine-year-old child was repeatedly called “idiot” and “stupid” by her classmates, who told her they hoped she never came back to class.
The Complaint details how children who once loved school cried, shook, and begged not to go to school following months of pervasive bullying. Some of these parents asked the District to transfer their children to new schools, away from the bullying, but the District refused.
“What we see is that parents, having tried for months to get the District to do something, make the rational choice to keep their children home on days when they are demonstrating extreme aversion to school,” Dutton said. “Rather than intervene in accordance with federal anti-discrimination laws, the District’s response was to refer these families to Truancy Court, where the problem is framed as a failure of the family. This is not only discriminatory, it erodes any semblance of trust between District staff and the families they serve.”
Attorneys for the parents hope that the Complaint will result in the implementation of new District policies and training to ensure school staff promptly and properly intervene to resolve bullying of students with disabilities in an appropriate, non-discriminatory manner. ELC is also seeking individual relief for the named students.
The students in this Complaint are represented by ELC attorneys Alex Dutton and Maura McInerney. More information about the case and a link to download a copy of the Complaint are here.
The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ/NGC students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

ELC files OCR complaint to remedy bullying of students with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia

On July 26, 2017, ELC filed a Complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of students with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia, alleging discrimination based on a systemic failure by the District to promptly and appropriately address severe and pervasive bullying of these students.  The Complaint chronicles the bullying of four students and explains how the District’s failure to respond to parent complaints, denying students the right to transfer, and referring students and parents to Truancy Court led to prolonged periods of pervasive bullying and the deprivation of free, appropriate public education to vulnerable students with disabilities.  ELC is seeking systemic reforms to remedy the District’s policies and practices.  You can read a copy of ELC’s Complaint here.

Local advocates brace for changes in federal education civil rights policy

“I don’t think districts are off the hook from following civil rights laws.”  Deborah Gordon Klehr, ELC Executive Director

7/17/2017 by , published in The Philadelphia School Notebook

Local advocates and civil rights leaders are preparing to be more watchful in response to the decision under the Trump administration to scale back the U.S. Department of Education’s investigations of civil rights violations.

The department announced in early June that it is changing its approach to dealing with discrimination complaints.

Through an internal memo, Candice Jackson, acting head of the department’s Office for Civil Rights, stated that investigations into systemic discrimination will no longer be required and cases will be treated on an individual basis. Civil rights advocates, including those in Philadelphia, say the new protocol could spell disaster for the nation’s most vulnerable students. Continue reading

Education Law Center Opposes House Bill 383

Nonprofit law center sends memo blasting “guns in schools” legislation

Read the memo: Guns Don’t Belong in Our Schools

Philadelphia, PA – Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, released the following statement today in response to Senate Bill 383, which the full Senate is scheduled to vote on today:

“Everyone wants our schools to be safe for students and educators, but Senate Bill 383 does just the opposite and puts our students in danger. Guns have no place in schools, and arming teachers and other school personnel will not make schools safer while dramatically raising the odds that students will be injured or killed because of a fatal mistake.

There is not one credible national, state, or local organization that supports the idea of arming school personnel. Even the Pennsylvania government’s own research into school climate and school safety rejects guns in schools: a 2014 Pennsylvania House Select Committee explicitly recommended against arming school personnel, and the 2016 Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee issued a lengthy report recommending changes to improve school climate that made no mention of arming teachers or staff members as a solution.

A recent amendment to the bill means the public won’t even know whether the teachers in a school are carrying concealed weapons.

If lawmakers are serious about improving school safety, they will instead invest resources into evidence-based programs that are shown to improve school climate and prevent violent incidents before they happen, including positive behavior supports, mental health services, and school counselors and psychologists.”


The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

Letter: “Re-think placing children in a facility like Wordsworth”

May 1, 2017 – Philadelphia Public School Notebook – by Maura McInerney

Last week, nine members of City Council called on the city and School District to take immediate action to dissolve their contracts with Wordsworth Philadelphia in the wake of reports of horrific abuse at the facility that led to the death of one child and the sexual assault of at least 49 others. Continue reading